Toads vs. Frogs
Skiing vs. Snowboarding
Chips vs. Pretzels
Charles Dickens vs. Suzanne Collins
Father vs. Son
King Kong vs. Betty White
(OK, this last one was just for fun and for that brief, bizarre image that flashed into your brain. Oh, the power of a few words.)
Except for the final example, each of these pairings pits two similar/related opponents in a “battle” of like against like—amphibians, winter sports, salty, crunchy snack foods, famous authors, and family members. These are, of course, fictional contests (except for the father/son pair—that is a daily contest and very real for me)—you won’t find them as summer “reality” programming on network television, and they are not part of the bill at a B-movie marathon at a drive-in theater near you. And as I said, they aren’t really contests; they are choices within a category; they are spots along a continuum. It is something my son said to me the other day though, that started my mind thinking along battle lines.
I had just started reading a book recommended by a good friend. I’m an early riser and like to read in the mornings, especially summer mornings, when it’s quiet. When my son (not an early riser) got up, he asked what I was reading. Defending Jacob by William Landay, was my answer. Andrew flipped through the book, noticing my bookmark at page 126/432. “Did you read all that this morning?” he asked, and yes, I had. (The book is a page-turner—highly recommended by both my friend and me.) It was at this point that he “threw down,” dismissing my reading as being a mere trifle compared to his, and the “battle” began. Andrew was reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and suggested that reading 126 pages in my book was possibly like reading 15-20 pages in his, though, according to him, you really couldn’t compare the two at all. Thus, his reading feat was stunning, and mine was, well, rather pedestrian. The battle for Andrew wasn’t really about whose book was better; he hasn’t read my book and I haven’t read his. But after he quickly scanned a few pages, the issue was clearly about whose book was “deeper,” “intellectual,” and “complicated.” In my son’s mind, he was obviously the victor.
This got me thinking (like nearly everything does these days) about the world of reading and writing instruction and the CCSS (www.corestandards.org). The Standards see pairings of the written works by authors like Thoreau and Landay or Charles Dickens and Suzanne Collins being separated by the notion of text complexity—neatly broken down, defined, and even measured in the informative, Appendix A (also highly recommended reading). The triangular visual is a representation for their Three-Part Model for Measuring Text Complexity. (Figure 1, Appendix A, page 4.)
What Andrew was suggesting to me (without knowing the specific CCSS terminology), is that Mr. Thoreau’s text is more complex than Mr. Landay’s on a Qualitative level—text structure, language conventionality, knowledge demands, a Quantitative level—word length, sentence length, text cohesion, and in terms of Reader and Task variables, specific to each reader—motivation, knowledge, experiences. To employ a term that we like to use at home, Thoreau is “chewier” than Landay. For those of you unfamiliar with the term chewy (chewier, chewiest), we are saying that Thoreau, for example, causes us as readers to read slowly, pause to look up words, stop to think (or even discuss), reread sentences, paragraphs, or even the whole text a second time. It’s not that there was no chewing going on with Defending Jacob, but in a novel, the rereading and pauses for discussion (with my wife, who has also read it), may not be as frequent and may be more about our personal connections to the characters or plot than about the content you would find in non-fiction.
The Standards for both reading and writing, from K-12, clearly emphasize a progression of chewiness—complexity and sophistication—in reading materials—to prepare students for the reading/writing/language demands of “college, workforce training programs, and life in general.” This makes absolute sense to me.
College may not be the next step for every student, but every student should leave a school system with next-step options. So how can teachers provide the kind of instruction that helps students through increasingly sophisticated and complex texts? Well, the bad news and the good news—in my opinion—is that no one knows exactly, and consequently, the Standards aren’t mandating specific processes and strategies—“Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”
That leaves us free to experiment—but also scratching for teaching ideas. But as you know, we’re here to help. So, following are some ideas and practices, connected to both reading and writing, to be filtered through your professional judgment and experience, designed to help students conquer this slope of complexity.
I want to focus my suggestions—we are operating under the name Sixtraitgurus—on the trait of sentence fluency. Though this trait is not named specifically, one of the key elements of the Standards’ emphasis on reading and writing complexity is varied syntax—sentences of varying lengths, structures, and purposes. (Sounds a bit like sentence fluency to me.) The standards also emphasize that students need to experience both texts and tasks that are developmentally appropriate and progressively more complex.
One of the practices I like to engage my writing students in is something we just called “Sentence(s) of the Day.” It became a part of our AYE (As You Enter) daily routine. In the beginning I chose the sentences, trying to vary sentence lengths, structures, fiction/non-fiction source, placement/purpose of each sentence—opening/closing sentence(s), first/in-between/last sentence of a paragraph, topic, support, detail, commentary, etc. The procedure went something like this:
- Students see the sentence(s) posted on the board/overhead/computer/document camera. Here is a pair of sentences I have used before: A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. (John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, Ch. 1)
- Students read the sentence out loud to themselves, then to a partner, listening while their partner reads the sentence aloud, as well. (They have now heard and/or read the sentence three times.)
- Students write the sentence on their Sentence of the Day paper (to be used for the current week), underlining any capital letters and circling all punctuation marks. (These are important clues for readers about starting/stopping points, type of sentence, and the capitalized words could indicate characters, important places, etc.)
- Students are also encouraged to highlight any words that they don’t know or understand, even after checking with their partner for help.
- Students need to count the words in the sentence(s) and record the number.
- A student volunteer reads the sentence aloud—maybe even more than one reader to hear it several times, and then the class directs the teacher to the circled, underlined, and highlighted parts. The teacher follows with questions (like these or any that come to mind): What punctuation did you notice? What is the reason for the comma/internal punctuation? What kind of sentences are these? What is the purpose of these opening sentences? Reasons for the capital letters? Does anyone know where Soledad or the Salinas River is located? What is the subject of each sentence? Predicate? Are there any words you aren’t sure of? Do you know the book? Author? Does this remind you of anything we have read? Can you tell from this sample what the book will be about? How many words are in the sentence(s)? Do they feel like long, medium, or short sentences? Etc. (As you can see, your questioning can go in several directions, including a focus on conventions, grammar, vocabulary, and so on. This all goes pretty quickly once the routine is established.)
- (Now for the fun part) It’s time to imitate! Students will now (working alone or with a partner) write a sentence that imitates the model sentence patterns. (These imitations are a student’s chance to try on a sentence whose structure or length is different from what they might independently use in their own writing. Over time, the imitations become more original, but in the beginning they could simply substitute in a new subject, verb, location, or as much as they are comfortable doing. They can’t change the punctuation or the basic structure. This is a great opportunity for you to model and write with your students.) Here are a couple examples of sentence pattern imitations of the model– Example A– A few miles south of Roseburg, the Umpqua River drops in close to the mountainside and runs deep and blue. The water is cold too, for it has slipped twinkling over the white snow in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. Example B– A few blocks north of Jeff’s house, the Sunset Highway cuts in close to the hillside bank and rolls for miles in either direction. The pavement is warm too, for it has sat baking beneath the many cars in the sunlight before cooling in the evening air.
- Sharing—Ask for volunteers to share their imitations. If you have a document camera, use it to project each student’s work. Students need to see and hear how their classmates imitated the sentence pattern. Volunteers need to feel safe, so I like to have everyone clap for each brave volunteer. I like to share as well, to help build a supportive culture. Sharing time is also a fast, formative assessment for me—I keep track of volunteers, and look and listen for the depth of changes in the imitations.
I collected the student’s papers at the end of the week, so I could take a closer look at their work, another formative assessment opportunity. I also looked for interesting examples to be posted in the room—each Sentence of the Day is displayed, followed by 1-2 imitations. This is meant to be a resource for students to use in their own writing—the Sentence of the Day bulletin board is a place to go for help when revising for sentence fluency. Students can choose a sentence pattern to try in their own writing.
For me, this classroom practice of reading, analyzing, and imitating sentences from increasingly complex texts, is just that—a practice. I’m not expecting perfection, but I am looking for evidence of progress in both their reading and writing. The first time I used this in my classroom, three important pieces of evidence of this kind of progress jumped out at me. After just a couple days, students began asking if they could read the book I had taken the day’s sentence from—I remember one day when I had taken a pair of sentences from Iain Lawrence’s The Wreckers. It was a rather gruesome description of a body washed up on the shore after a shipwreck and stirred up quite a bidding war—“I want to borrow that book!”—for my only copy of the book. Really cool! After only a few weeks, students, based on their own reading (I have even received some sentences from parents), began suggesting sentences for us to use as Sentences of the Day. I snapped these up, giving the student credit when it was used in class. Very cool! The last evidence highlight took a bit longer to surface. It took close to five weeks of Sentences of the Day before I began noticing obvious imitations of sentences we had focused on popping up in students’ writing; they were applying their practice to improve the sentence fluency of their own writing. These were not copycat sentences but tributes to the original authors and the complexity of the original text. And other students began noticing the exemplar tributes in their classmates work, as well. Cool. Really, very cool!
Here are a few more sentence exemplars, of varying complexity, I have used with students. I have selected them from books I have read. This allows me to help students understand the sentence’s context within the whole text. :
My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.
Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie
While some sharks eat only plankton, most are supreme fish-eating predators whose jaws bristle with several rows of teeth.
Joyce Sidman, Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors
When the first raven came it was alone, a piece of blackness laboring across a cold dawn sky.
Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild
Moving the lamp as the man moved, I made out that he was substantially dressed, but roughly; like a voyager by sea. That he had long iron grey hair. That his age was about sixty. That he was a muscular man, strong on his legs, and that he was browned and hardened by exposure to weather.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Determined to apply economic pressure peacefully, black protesters let the nearly empty buses rumble on by like green ghosts, ignoring the doors that snapped open invitingly at the corners, and devised their own transportation system.
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Next, catching sight of Odysseus, Priam said,
“Now tell me about that man over there, dear child.
He is shorter than Agamemnon but, truly, he looks
more muscular, and broader in chest and shoulders.
His weapons and armor lie on the bountiful earth,
And he himself strides about through the ranks of soldiers
Like a thick-fleeced ram through a flock of silvery ewes.”
Homer, The Iliad, translated by Stephen Mitchell
I think it’s important to remember that complexity, as defined in the Standards, is not one-dimensional. Complexity is not solely about the length of a text, the number of “big” words, whether it is fiction or non-fiction or rhyming couplets, the publication date, or the historical status of the author. It could be about one or all of these factors. The issue of complexity is, in itself, complex. In Appendix B, it states that, “Complexity is best found in whole texts rather than passages from such texts.” Well, I feel that complexity isn’t that simple. The classroom practice just described, is based on “passages” taken from longer texts. I believe passages can be used to preview, prepare, establish classroom practices, scaffold necessary skills, focus classroom instruction, and even to motivate students to be excited about tackling whole texts.
I want to put in a pitch for taking a careful read/study of CCSS for ELA & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks. That title is a real mouthful, perhaps a bit chewy, and not a real grabber, but please, dive in anyway. As the last part of the title suggests, Appendix B is filled with grade-level specific suggested texts and tasks, not mandates. This appendix is a resource, a bulletin board, a possible template, a potential comfort zone, and definitely a professional conversation/discussion starter.
Coming up on Gurus . . . Look for reviews of some stellar literature, including Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and coming up next, one for young readers, Perfect Square by Michael Hall. Please remember, for the very BEST in writing workshops combining standards, traits, process, workshop, and literature, phone 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by, and please come again. If you enjoy our posts, recommend us to friends. Give every child a voice.