A True Story
This was the kind of math problem a third grade boy (let’s call him Tommy) in a special education class was trying to solve. It was one of the money problems he had to deal with for that assignment. When the principal came in and walked among the students he noticed that Tommy looked frustrated and defeated. “What’s wrong?” he asked Tommy. “I don’t know this word, or this word, or this word,” answered our struggling student. He couldn’t attempt the math because the reading of the “word problem” was interfering. This is not an unusual scenario, is it?
[FLASH BACK] I had been working with the staff of this wonderful school teaching Best Practices in literacy. We had done 6 days of workshops, and 2 days of modeling, so far this year. We had spent time thinking about the strategies of competent readers and how to make them explicit for our students. One of the strategies we studied was using and creating schema. The principal had been in attendance through every minute of each of those sessions. (He is truly an educational leader!) He could see that Tommy was not using what he knew (his schema) about money to unlock the unfamiliar words.
The principal asked Tommy, “What are these math problems about?”
“Money, and I need to know if Susan can buy that game, but I can’t read those words”, Tommy muttered, pointing to the names of the coins.
Principal, “Think about what you know about money that starts with the letter ‘p’, Tommy.”
Tommy, “Oh, you mean activate my schema!! So, that’s penny, and then this one is dime, and here is quarter!” [Big smile!] (Clearly, his teacher had explicitly taught Tommy about activating his schema. Next step, getting him to use it habitually and automatically.)
Activating our schema results in narrowing the possible options for an unknown word. When we use our schema, along with the first letter or chunk of letters, we further narrow the acceptable options.
It’s about money – it starts with ‘p’, how many options are there? No need to “sound it out”, spitting and sputtering over the sounds. Meaning and beginning sound(s) were enough to efficiently solve the reading problem for this below level reader.
Challenged readers need explicit teaching that helps them independently think about what they know on the topic of their reading. Then they have a “ballpark” of words that will fit. This is a strategy which must become automatic for the students. It doesn’t work if we have to keep reminding them to: think about what they know; use their background knowledge; activate their schema; or however you word it. They have to do the thinking independently.
Word starts with ‘qu’ and I don’t know it – but I know this is a fairy tale. What might this word be? _______
Word starts with ‘qu’ and I know it’s a bird some people hunt. What might it be? ________
Word starts with ‘qu’ and I know the girl is running a race. What might this describing word be? ________
There are many ways to teach students to activate their thinking. Tune in to my next blog to learn a few techniques.
And, please, respond with some of the techniques you have used that have worked well.