Rigorous Reading Across Content Areas: Text-Dependent Formative Tasks

Back in February, I had the opportunity to attend the Oregon Reading Association’s Winter Institute, featuring Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. For a self-professed literacy geek like me, this experience was akin to IT folks hearing from Steve Jobs, Classical Violinists spending a day with Itzhak Perlman, or Craft Brewers (hey, we are in Oregon) being addressed by Fritz Maytag. It’s not often we get to see our professional mentors live and in person, at the Holiday Inn PDX Airport, no less.

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Their presentation provided guidance for teaching complex texts and raising the level of rigor in the classroom, which are Common Core literacy cornerstones. A bonus of our participation in the session included walking away with a copy of Fisher & Frey’s 2013 title, Rigorous Reading, 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts. Although each access point is worthy of its own blog post , the one this post is devoted to is Access Point #5: Demonstrating Understanding and Assessing Performance. In this section of the text, the authors posit the need for after-reading “Text-Dependent Tasks” such as the following:

Perspective Writing: Perhaps too often, we teachers assume the role of audience for a student’s writing. Writing from differing perspectives or to a different audience can stretch students’ decision-making powers. Who is the audience? What then is the purpose of my writing? What register must I employ in my style?

Many teachers have heard of and have used the RAFT strategy developed by Santa and Havens (1995) requiring students to understand the Role, Audience, Format, and Topic for each piece of writing. Fisher & Frey resurrect it here as a strategy for formative assessment. In one example they cite, an English teacher learns she needs to review author’s purpose and the introduction to The Metamorphosis because her students don’t show evidence of understanding beyond the literal level when presented this RAFT:

Role – Gregor Samsa

Audience – Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, his parents

Format – Note

Topic – Why don’t you notice me?

Though, RAFT is not only for the realm of the English Teacher. Apply RAFT after reading a famous historical speech, such as Susan B. Anthony’s “Women’s Rights to the Suffrage, 1873.”

Role – Participant

Audience – Susan B. Anthony

Format – Letter

Topic – Reaction to this speech

In Science: After reading the article, “West Coast starfish are dying, but why?” convince Congress that the plight of sea stars is farther reaching than just one species:

Role – Researcher

Audience – U.S. Congress

Format – Speech Talking Points

Topic – Explanation of metaphor: “…starfish are sentinels about conditions in our oceans….”

Here are a few other Text Dependent Task ideas to include in your repertoire:

  • Admit Slips: Akin to Exit Tickets, students instead respond to an assigned topic as they enter the classroom. “Describe the water cycle.” “Why are irrational numbers important in science and engineering?”  “What factors motivated the character to commence her journey?”
  • Found Poems: As students reread a text, have them find key phrases to arrange into a free-verse poem, linked with connector words (articles, conjunctions, “to be” verbs, etc.)
  • Yesterday’s News: Summarize the information presented the day before, from a film, reading, lecture, or discussion.
  • Write a letter to people who have made a difference. Write to Albert Einstein about the negotiations for a present day nuclear deal in Iran. Write to an author about his/her influence on a particular topic (TC Boyle on the environment; Roald Dahl on imagination, for example).

Students beginning some of these tasks may need a reminder to go back to text and quote or paraphrase in their responses. Sentence frames to introduce text are helpful aids to guide students:

  • (author) states, “….”
  • In her book _______, (author) maintains that, “….”
  • X disagrees when he writes, “….”
  • According to the text, “….”

Supplemental frames to assist students with explaining their evidence can prevent the infamous “hanging quote,” when students mistakenly think that quoted text speaks for itself:

  • Basically, X is saying _______.
  • In other words, X believes ________.
  • X‘s point is that ________.

Finally, writers also need to make a distinct connection, identifying the reason for including the quote/evidence. Simple connector frames could be:

  • This statement is important because ______.
  • This relates to _____.
  • This contradicts _____ because ______.

Perhaps May isn’t the time that you’re thinking about doing “heavy lifting” in the classroom, but consider these ideas seeds. Let them germinate over the summer if you’re not ready to harvest them today. You never know what you might reap in the Fall.

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