Friday, March 2, 2012

Helping Kids to Build Mental Models

What is a mental model? I worked with my readers to figure this out this week. We had already talked about the word "model" in social studies class. (This site from National Geographic has a nice lesson for understanding what a model is.) I told students, "Mental means in your brain. So a mental model is a model of a text in your brain."

We went back to the last text we had shared together, and discussed how we pictured this text in our brains. My students are familiar with the words visualize and schema, so we looked at how readers use visualizing and their schema as they build mental models.

These mental models will be important for us as we move into more complicated texts this spring. Some of the stories that are ahead will have holes in the narratives, flashbacks, or twist endings. Having a mental representation of the text will be vital for readers to comprehend these more complex narratives.

The first step, then, is to help readers see what happens when their mental models shift. How could I get students to understand this? I decided to try an error detection exercise. In these kinds of tasks, a reader needs to read to find an error. I was very cautious about this--I don't want kids to think that reading is about finding the mistake!--but I wanted them to understand what it feels like when there is a detail that just doesn't fit.

They loved it! We used choral reading to read the passage together. When they found the error in the first passage, some started laughing. "I can picture it, but it doesn't make sense," one student said. Then, they had to figure out a word that could fit in the text. This was a little trickier for them, but all of them figured out a word that would fit.

The next passage was a little more difficult. It was interesting watching students as they worked on this one. They came up with different ways to fix the passage. Some changed the weather in the sentence, while others changed the kind of field that the game would be played on. After we did a few more, students worked with their partners to write their own little texts. Some of them turned out very well--one group wrote about a girl who was playing basketball and "kicked" the ball into the net. At the end, we talked about how they had built mental models for each text. They found the whole activity very enjoyable, which is always a plus!

If you try this with your students, here are some questions to ask:

-What are you visualizing?
-What background knowledge do you need to use?
-How did the mistake affect your mental model?

...and, of course, keep the search for errors short and sweet. Next, we're using what we've learned to read a text with a twist ending. Readers will need to make some fast adjustments to their mental models to understand what is going on. Instead of changing the text, they'll have to change their mental models. Hopefully, finding these errors will have given them some scaffolding for this next step.

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