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Center for Teaching and Learning

Focused Inquiry Groups (FIGs) - BSI:  Reading Apprenticeship

Reading Apprenticeship - Members - Kent Uchiyama

Reading Apprenticeship Faculty Inquiry Group

Instructor Review

Spring 2009


Although I still have a lot to learn about Reading Apprenticeship, I’ve tried adding some of its methods to some techniques I’ve used for years to develop my students’ reading. By and large, I’m very pleased with the results; the RA methods dovetailed well with what I’d been doing, which already included a lot of group reading and discussion.

Here’s a quick example of what I was already doing before encountering RA. One of the most useful activities was to have my students read in groups of four to five. They’d take turns reading aloud (without stopping to look up new words), and when they came to an end of a chunk of text, they’d stop and discuss these questions:

     • What did we find out from this section/page/paragraph?
     • What parts aren’t clear yet? Can we figure them out?

I was available if a group needed some help. After they group felt they had finished, they read the next chunk of text the same way, continuing on this fashion until the end of the reading. When a group felt that they understood the reading, I’d them a set of comprehension questions to discuss. Some of these questions required only a short answer, but others required some pretty extensive paraphrasing and summarizing. At this point, the students were only allowed to talk about the questions, not write the answers. This was intended to keep them engaged and working together to decode and create meaning from the text. At the end of class, I’d assign the class to write the answers as homework.

So, what have I added from RA? Primarily, three things: greater emphasis on talking to the text, metacognitive questions about my students’ reading process, and lists of reading strategies generated by the students themselves. I’ll discuss each of these in turn.

ESL students often annotate vocabulary on their own; sometimes I’ll look at a student’s textbook and see that every fifth word or so has the Chinese, Vietnamese, Farsi, or Spanish translation penciled in above it. But I’ve been working to get my students to annotate the text’s content, not just new vocabulary items. I started by having my students talk to the text as they read in class, where I could walk around and provide help as needed. I then started to require talking to the text as part of some of the reading homework. On the day the reading was due, I’d check each students’ book to see if the students were “getting it.” Some students seemed to take to annotation right away, making thoughtful and engaged notes and comments in the margins. (Questions seemed a lot less common.) Other students didn’t seem to care for it, at least judging by the quantity and quality of their annotations. I’m wondered if one reason for this might be that a lot of ESL students see vocabulary as the main obstacle to understanding the text; they’re convinced that if they only understood every word, they’d understand the reading. They have a point: they definitely need the vocabulary, but I also want them to understand that they’ll need to think about other issues as well. In order to get my students to start thinking beyond the vocabulary, I tried assigning articles from Newsweek and the New York Times that required more thought and cultural knowledge than the readings in the high-intermediate ESL textbooks our program usually uses for 110c; even if my students looked up every word, they’d still need to further engage the article in order to understand it. My students rose to the occasion quite admirably. After some initial bewilderment (and grumbling), most came to class with notes scribbled all over their readings and proceeded to have some highly spirited group work as they worked together to extract meaning from the text. Judging from their written work on the articles, the great majority of the students were able to arrive at a very detailed understanding of the text. I’m going to do a classroom assessment towards the end of the semester to see how well my students think this approach has worked, but my impression now is that they’re feeling good about the progress they’re making.

This semester I also introduced metacognitive questions into my students’ discussions of the readings. Most of these questions focused on helping the students to identify which parts of the reading were difficult and what could be done to overcome these difficulties. At the end of this report I’ve appended handouts, “Practice Reading Quiz on ‘Toilet Paper and Other Moral Choices’” and “Reading Assignment: Esperanza Rising, ‘Las Papayas’” and “Metacognitive Questions on ‘Bay Area Workers Train for Clean Energy Jobs.’” Here too, most students cited vocabulary as their primary difficulty. (E.g.—Questions: “What, if any, parts of this article are still unclear to you? What could you do to find out what these parts are saying?” Answers: “The vocabulary. I could look up the words.”) This has gotten me thinking about what more that I, and the ESL program in general, might be doing do increase our students’ vocabulary in the short time they’re with us. I’m still turning this question over. Trying to teach vocabulary with words lists has, in my opinion, a very limited value, and how many words can a student memorize a week, anyhow? Acquiring vocabulary by wide reading and listening works a lot better, but it takes a lot longer. I’m not sure what answers I’ll end up with, but it’s good to revisit the questions.

I also tried to get my students to generate their own lists of reading tips. This met with limited success, but I have some ideas about what I’d like to do differently next time around. I did this activity early on in the semester, and as I mentioned earlier, almost all of my students responded to these questions by saying that the vocabulary was hard and that their suggestions was to look up the new words. It may have been my imagination, but it also seemed to me they were all gazing at me with expressions that said, “Why is my teacher asking me such a stupid question?” As a result, I shied away from trying this activity more than a couple of times in each class. I think it would have worked a lot better if I’d done the activity AFTER my students had started reading the articles I mentioned a couple paragraphs above. If I’d started then and kept an ongoing list, I might have had a good collection of suggestions by the end of the semester. I’ll give this a shot next semester and see how it goes. This semester I ended up giving my students my own reading suggestions, which are ones that I’ve been using for quite a few a years, with a greater emphasis on talking to the text. You can see examples of these on the handouts “Benjamin Franklin and the Art of Humility” and “Reading Assignment: Esperanza Rising, ‘Las Papayas.’” By and large, this seemed to work, but I think I could get the students to generate their own lists next time around.

I’m looking forward to the RA conference in Oakland this summer and to trying more RA methods in my classes next fall.

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