We Must Use Texts as a Tool, Not as a Crutch
There is a continuum of understanding that represents a dimmer
switch. At one end of the continuum, understanding sheds a little light. This type
of reading results in a superficial and piecemeal idea of what the text is about.
Such understanding may contain inaccuracies and will soon be forgotten. At the other
end, the thorough understanding gained not only illuminates the text clearly and
sharply, but sheds light on other knowledge as well.
— Chapman, 1993, pp. 5-6
As educators, our goal is to empower our students to reach the far end of the continuum
of knowledge and skill. We use whatever resources are available to us, but often
our resources are limited to a textbook and our own creativity.
Ask Not What Your Text Can Do for You...
Student texts are filled with knowledge that has already been interpreted, and the
expectation is simply that readers will accept and recall the information. As our
students advance through the educational system, this method of "instruction" is
used with increasing frequency. During high school, 75 percent of class work and
90 percent of homework come from text materials (Katims & Harmon, 2000). One
reason for a continued reliance on text-driven work may be the pressure we feel
to cover extensive state and local content standards. Text-driven work is one of
the quickest ways to cover material and has continued despite recent and growing
interest in more authentic and relevant methods for instruction and assessment.
While textbooks can be a great source of information, a reliance on them as the
main instructional method will often result in frustration for both us and our students.
Our frustration develops from the basic incompatibility of untrained adolescent
readers and their textbooks. One major difficulty arises from a lack of context
for the content presented.
Because of the breadth of knowledge that must go into texts, they often end up being
a "catalog of features rather than a sequence of related events" (Beck & McKeown,
1991, p. 484). Thus the burden of creating context falls upon the students. This
would not necessarily be a problem if students had enough background knowledge upon
which to build a deeper understanding of the facts in their texts. However, as Harmon
and Hedrick (2000) indicate, limited exposure to new vocabulary and the differing
meanings and connotations of vocabulary also keep students from gathering and creating
background knowledge with which to engage texts and activate prior knowledge. For
example, in the modern world history curriculum, we learn multiple definitions of
nationalism when studying World War I. Depending on
the context, it can mean a desire for a country to represent one's ethnic and cultural
group, or it can mean an intense love for one's country. If there is no explanation
accompanying the vocabulary in the text when studying World War I, this important
difference can go without notice.
...Ask What You Can Do for Your Text
So what can teachers do to help students overcome these difficulties and maximize
the potential of their texts? My first step when planning for my ninth grade modern
world history classes is to review the text and see how it aligns with the standards
I am responsible for teaching. The Ohio Department of Education has issued specific
academic content standards for social studies, and in my district, these standards
make up our courses of study. These provide a very precise focus for how each event
is to be presented. For example, in modern world history, the Korean and Vietnam
Wars are characterized as merely one component of the cold war. With these guidelines
in mind, I identify which sections and subsections of the text are actually relevant
to the story I am to tell, and I use them judiciously. Teachers often end up requiring
readings that contain irrelevant or non-course-aligned information when they assign
complete chapters or sections. While all knowledge is valuable, we do a disservice
to our students if we do not actively seek to prepare them for the tests for which
they will be held accountable. By specifically identifying where my standards are
located in the text, I actually create time for those standards that do not appear
in the text.
After locating a relevant section in the text, I skim through it to identify problematic
words and phrases. If there is any critical vocabulary that my students may not
recognize, I provide this information before we use the text. This process does
not need to be long and involved; a basic call and response will give enough information
for a more successful reading. As I mentioned before, explaining the different definitions
of nationalism is an important component of understanding
the development of World War I. In addition, most ninth graders will need help understanding
terms such as militarism, mobilization, and
attrition. Without understanding these words, they will struggle to see
how the war developed and spread. If they lack this understanding, it will seem
unrealistic that a territorial dispute in Eastern Europe led to devastation around
Once the important sections have been identified and new vocabulary introduced,
I provide students with a frame upon which to build new knowledge. One of my favorite
ways to provide structure is to use graphic organizers. Straightforward tables,
timelines, idea trees, and flow charts can give students the scaffold they need
to make real meaning of and internalize new information. Easily interpreted graphic
organizers help students recognize the main themes in the text selection and the
relationships between them. For example, when helping students cross the bridge
from World War I to World War II, it is crucial for them to see the impact of the
Treaty of Versailles. A simple chart breaking down the main components assists students
in comprehension of their effects. The following example is a completed chart that
can be used as a handout. I prefer a more interactive method and would give it to
students incomplete as a guided reading or notes activity.
Another way I try to help students see the relationships in their content is to
present the basic information in a format with which they are accustomed: narrative.
The level of familiarity comes from the fact that narrative is the structure of
our daily speech patterns (Beck, 1991), as well as the stories provided as early
reading experiences in the primary grades.
I tell them a short version of the story, as if I am telling someone about a funny
experience I had at the grocery store; I provide all necessary background information,
giving them the main highlights and sequence of events so that they will have an
overview upon which to place the details they get from their texts. Once they are
familiar with the content, I take the activity a step further and ask them to help
me tell the story. Students love the opportunity to move around and demonstrate
their new knowledge. As we proceed through the acted-out narrative, or even the
investigation of a photograph or artistic representation, I pause to ask for ideas
on how historical figures made their significant choices.
I enjoy doing this while studying the beginning of World War I and the assassination
of Franz Ferdinand because it's such a dramatic story. I first project a photo of
Franz and his wife, Sophie, being half-heartedly saluted during their tour of Sarajevo,
and involve students in an analysis of its subjects. The students immediately focus
in on the clothing, but after a bit of laughter, they are able to notice less obvious
details. For example, when I ask them about the faces of the men saluting, they
recognize that none of them look happy. We ponder why that might be and what thoughts
might be running through each man's head. I then ask for volunteers to help me act
out the story of what follows this photograph. No one is required to speak, just
to follow direction. We "drive" our car through the streets, encountering incompetent
assassins, until finally our wrong turn leads us directly into the path of Gavrilo
Princip. This activity is a perennial favorite, and students comment on it years
later. Being involved and hearing the information in story-time fashion allowed
them to retain the basic ideas on which they built their understanding of the causes
of World War I.
Interactive and authentic activities make the learning experience more memorable
and thus increase retention; they also promote critical thinking and even problem-solving
skills. Authentic learning experiences offer a contextual way to allow students
to investigate perspective, which is a key theme in both the social sciences and
English curriculums. When used with appropriate support, texts and other documents
take on enhanced value in the classroom, providing rich learning opportunities.
Beck, Isabel L. (1991). Revising social studies text from a text-processing perspective:
Evidence of improved comprehensibility. Reading Research Quarterly,
Beck, Isabel L., & McKeown, Margaret G. (1991). Social studies texts are hard
to understand: Mediating some of the difficulties (research directions).
Language Arts, 68(6), 482-490.
Chapman, Anne (Ed.). (1993). What is critical reading? Making sense:
Teaching critical reading across the curriculum (pp. 3-12). New York:
College Board Publications.
Harmon, Janis M., & Hedrick, Wanda B. (2000). Zooming in and zooming out: Enhanced
vocabulary and conceptual learning in social studies. Reading Teacher,
Katims, David S., & Harmon, Janis M. (2000). Strategic instruction in middle
school social studies: Enhancing academic and literacy outcomes for at-risk students.
Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(5), 280-289.
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