Throughout my career I’ve taught struggling readers.
Here’s one area of struggle I see all the time, and not just among struggling readers—I see it with middle school students and also with university students: how to notice key details. In other words: how to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Have you ever seen a student highlight almost everything in a text? That’s a symptom of this problem.
When you read, you can’t pay attention to and remember everything. You have to make choices about what is most crucial. So you have to know not only what makes a detail or authorial move crucial and key, you also have to know how to notice what is most crucial and key.
In our new book, Diving Deep Into Nonfiction, this is a challenge that my colleague and co-author Michael Smith take up. In Michael’s previous blog post, he wrote about how to notice the topics—or conversational threads that nonfiction texts take up. This kind of noticing is essential to understanding the turn a text is taking in an ongoing conversation, but also is helpful to noticing key details, and necessary to understanding how to infer the main ideas expressed by texts.
I’ve just returned from a Fulbright teaching fellowship to Germany, where I taught 8th and 11th grade English, as well as a university reading methods class. A lot of my school students were refugees, many learning English as a fourth or fifth language. The courses were heavy on reading, and there was lots of struggle, which I did my best to reframe into the hard fun of “productive struggle.” The students I work with in Boise, Idaho are not so different: very diverse, lots of refugee students, and lots of reading to do.
So how do you assist students to productively engage with the challenge of noticing key details?
When we teach something challenging, a move we make as teachers is to start with visual texts. We’ve found throughout our careers that almost all concepts and strategies that we want to teach can be taught through the use of visual texts, from fine art to cartoons, YouTube videos to print ads. This move of starting with visual texts exemplifies smart instructional sequencing. Research shows that we move from the concrete to the abstract as we build understanding, and from the visual to the nonvisual. And making this move is democratic. It means that our ELL students and struggling readers start out with texts they can read. They get practice with the essential moves of a strategy before they move on to practicing it with verbal text, or more complex and multimodal text.
Here’s one example of how it works. In an inquiry unit on “What makes and breaks relationships?” I wanted to teach my middle school students “rules of notice” for key details so that they would see the cues that a detail was important.
We began with viewing several double portraits which always express something about relationships. One of these paintings was Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic.” I projected an image of the painting onto a screen, and asked my students to work in pairs to list a few key details that they knew the artist expected them to notice. Questions for students:
- What did the painter do to draw your attention to particular details?
- What was the tip-off or cue to notice it?
As the class reported out, I named the kinds of rules of notice that were expressed.
I began by reminding them of the title and putting up a definition of “gothic” which can mean “iconic”, “type” or even “underside”. I reminded students that titles constituted a rule of notice because they always help the reader/viewer infer key details. Another rule is to notice things that have double or multiple meanings because these will be played upon.
The first thing reported out was the expression on the character’s faces, which were described as “unhappy”, “serious”, “tired” and even “dour”. We discussed how we knew to notice the expressions on their faces and one boy said “When you meet someone, you always want to notice how they are feeling.” We noted that one rule of notice would be to notice character expressions and emotions, and another might be to notice the emotional charge we get from a detail.
Next noticed was the pitchfork. Why? It’s repeated: in the man’s overall pocket and the gable window. Rule of notice: Notice repetition and repeated patterns. Also, it is front and center and between the characters. Rule: Notice details that are front and center and put in your face. What else. Pitchforks have a symbolic valence (work, hell). The discussion continued.
There were other things to notice too: how they were dressed (dress clothes over work clothes) which constituted a rule of notice called a rule of rupture—anything surprising or inconsistent. And that the woman is standing somewhat behind the man and is looking askance while he looks at the painter (two more ruptures). There was a barn over the man’s left shoulder and plants and gardening tools over her right shoulder. There as the church window in the gable. And on it went.
We listed all the key details on an anchor chart and then asked what they all had in common and seemed to comment on. The students paired up and then reported out, listing topic ideas such as relationships, marriage, gender roles, farm life, gender roles and relationships, farm life and relationships. An important point was made here: any text has multiple topics, and comments are made on each topic by the pattern of key details. The topic-comment strategy is a great way for students to learn how to interpret patterns of details to find and express the main ideas and themes expressed by a text.
The students paired up again and used the most compelling topic to them to express a topic comment, with the prompt: Relationships are . . . or Relationships require . . . or Relationships can lead to . . . or any other verb or verb phrase that would lead into a comment that could be justified by the pattern of key details.
The students came up with ideas like: Relationships require a lot of hard work. Gender roles require the division of labor. Gender roles require the woman to be behind the man, which can lead to unhappiness. The students then had fun justifying their topic comments by explaining how the key details (evidence) worked to support their justification (inferring and reasoning about evidence to support a claim). We call this technique “microwriting” or in this case “microarguments”, a quick way to practice the basic moves of literary interpretation and of argument.
What came next? Students need lots of practice to master and transfer important strategies such as these. So their reward for doing so well was to practice with other double portraits such as Renoir’s La Loge, Van Eyck’s The Arnolfino Wedding and much more, then having students seek and find other double portraits and present what they express about relationships. We then proceeded to thinking aloud about short nonfiction texts, using the same rules of notice to identify key details and how authors had “tipped us off” to notice them.
What’s the result of this practice? Really big payoffs that have value throughout a lifetime:
- Students become more powerful and consciously competent readers
- They become better writers in two ways:
- By being better readers they get more grist for their own writing, using reading to develop their own ideas and understandings—and
- By coming to understand and articulate the expectations writers have of readers they can put these same codes and structures into their own writing.