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Are my students ready to read this book?

June 28, 2018

Once you have determined that a novel is within reach for a student in a Level 1 class, you must determine whether it is readable for your students, now. Mira Canion and I welcome you to Post #2 in our series to help you confidently choose novels to read with your students in the coming school year and beyond! Here is an overview of the series:

  • “Is this text REALLY Level 1?” / Which factors contribute to text complexity?
  • “Are my kids ready to read this novel?” / The role of background knowledge
  • “How many words are in this novel, anyway?” / In search of an standard for presenting word counts.

Welcome to the second post! The essential question that we will address in this installment is, “How do I determine whether my students are individually and collectively ready to confidently read a particular novel?”How can you know if your students are ready to read a book that you have chosen for the class?WHAT YOU DON’T WANT: Perhaps you have had that all-too-common experience in your teaching: you choose a text to read in class and quickly realize that the text is way over students’ level of comprehension. Every few seconds, students are looking up vocabulary words and writing them above the corresponding text. Sound familiar? This is not reading; this is the Hunger Games: the student who makes the most progress in the text wins! But with one student winning comes many students losing, and as a teacher, you have lost the trust of your students to choose an appropriate text for their reading proficiency. Now, instead of asking “How can I connect my students with this text?”, you have found yourself asking, “How do I gracefully bow out of the reading?”

WHAT YOU DO WANT: Novels that you read as a class should create momentum. They should create a “club” to which all students in your class belong (through shared knowledge, language, jokes, etc.). A well-chosen novel will bring the class together and move everyone forward. A novel that is chosen poorly will create division and frustrate process on the path to proficiency. Texts written for language learners should be stepping stones to texts written for native speakers, and so novels that you read as a class should have “accessible authenticity”. Ideally, look for novels that use simplified language in authentic ways and offer bridges and direct connections to the products, practices, and perspectives of your target culture. With so many variables, how can you be confident that you are choosing a novel that will be a ‘win’ for all of your students? Let us let you in on a little secret: it all comes down to background knowledge.

Learners are prepared for the text and their interest is piqued by previewing the text, activating their background knowledge and world experiences, and anticipating pertinent vocabulary and text language.

Glisan and Donato Enacting the Work of Language Instruction, p. 71

Our goal with this post is to give you a few simple tests that you can conduct to determine whether or not your students have the background knowledge necessary to fluently read a novel. That being said, the most important takeaway from this post is that selecting a novel to read as a class is a weighty decision, and it is important for you--the teacher--to evaluate several options with care before you choose one and begin to read it in class. 

READ A NOVEL AFTER READING SHORTER TEXTS: Before considering whether students are ready to read a specific novel, consider whether they are ready to read any novel. A novel should not be the first text that your level one students tackle together. If you want your students to read a novel-length narrative, give them opportunities to read paragraph and page-length narratives prior to beginning the novel. If you want students to read a novel-length biography or historical accounts, give them opportunities to read paragraph and page-length biographies and historical accounts! These shorter texts will build their background knowledge about text structure (dialogue, punctuation, etc.) and their ‘stamina’; their confidence to hold a book in their hands and feel like they are capable of reading the whole thing. 

CHOOSE NOVELS THAT YOUR STUDENTS ARE READY TO READ: When it comes to evaluating whether or not students are ready to read  a specific novel, we must consider students’ background knowledge in the areas of VOCABULARY and TOPICAL KNOWLEDGE. » VOCABULARY Reading with fluency and accuracy involves making meaning of the text by interpreting vocabulary instantaneously and correctly. This includes the ability to decipher cognates, use context clues to determine the meaning of words with multiple definitions, and utilize visual information. When a student reads a word and thinks, “It looks familiar”, but doesn’t know what it means at that moment--that is not fluent reading. Choose novels that have an attainable word count. So, what can your students REALLY acquire in one semester? What can we reasonably assume that the active vocabulary of a 1st or 2nd semester Spanish 1 student would be? At semester, how many words would your students be able to understand in the context of a novel. Would a typical student acquire two words per hour of instruction? After 30 hours of instruction, that would be 60 core words. Many level 1 novels have an unique word count of 150. Look back on the last year and ask yourself if a unique word count of 150 is attainable for your students at the end of the first semester of Level 1. What about at the end of the second semester? If you look for novels with lower word counts (50...75..100), when would that novel be within reach of the majority of your students, given the time constraints that come with classroom instruction? Keep in mind, though, that... Total word count matters less than vocabulary density. ‘Vocabulary Density' is a measurement of vocabulary usage in comparison to the length of the book. This ratio is expressed as the 'Inverse Absolute Vocabulary Density' (IAVD)and is computed dividing the Total Words by the Unique Words (W/V).” An IAVD of 1.0 indicates that not a single word was repeated. The farther away from 1.0 you get, the more repetition of vocabulary there is. This computation is not quite as straightforward as it seems because authors and publishers of novels written for language learners have different approaches to counting unique words (grouping words by lemmas, not counting footnoted words, not counting cognates, etc.). Until there is an ‘industry standard’ that is followed by everyone, it will be difficult to compare word counts between publishers--but you can definitely use published word count to compare among a single author’s or publisher’s works. Two quick clues to get a feel for the vocabulary density of a Level 1 novel without conducting a word count are the author’s craft in comprehensifying the text and the presence of dialogue. When more words on the page are dedicated to a small set of vocabulary, the text is easier to read. A lot of dialogue increases vocabulary density because it introduces many different verb forms simultaneously. As a case study, let’s look at page 1 of Mira’s new novel, La perezosa impaciente (The Impatient Sloth”): La perezosa impaciente is an easy novel for emerging Spanish readers to understand. Set in Colombia, it features many Amazonian animals!We reviewed this page with our Text Complexity Checklist from our last post, and we want to point out a few factors that come into play in the Vocabulary Density section. First, notice how each paragraph is dedicated to a single set of vocabulary. We get to know the main character, Mía, by “parking” on one characteristic at a time: » Paragraph 1: She is slow but wants to be fast. » Paragraph 2: She lives in one tree but wants to explore other trees. » Paragraph 3: She wants to explore but is forbidden. The novel launches with familiar text structure that scaffolds comprehension. Story structure is how our brains are wired and this structures helps readers make meaning of unknown text. Dialogue--which brings with it different verb forms and unfamiliar punctuation--is reserved for the coming pages. For now, the reader can simply enjoy connecting with the main character. Use the Five Finger Rule to determine whether the vocabulary level of the novel is a match for your students. By “match”, we mean that the vocabulary range and density is not too low, not too high--just right.

“Unknown words” are NOT words that students don’t know when they open the book; they are words that they can’t easily figure out while reading the page. Often, the author includes visual support (such as illustrations) or even footnotes to establish meaning for a new word. If the reader can easily determine the meaning of the word, it should not be counted as unknown. Let’s look at this page from La perezosa impaciente: La perezosa impaciente is an easy novel for emerging Spanish readers to understand. Set in Colombia, it features many Amazonian animals!An early reader might not know the expression “toma café” when they pick up this book. The picture of a sloth perched in a tree with a steaming cup of coffee helps the reader interpret the expression, “toma café” (drinks coffee) and to be confident in their interpretation (which they might find themselves doubting since sloths don’t drink coffee in real life). As a result of the visual support, few students will likely count “toma” and “café” in their Five Finger Test as unknown words even if they didn’t know that expression when they first began reading. Before reading a class novel, we suggest having some of your struggling readers conduct the Five Finger Test on a few scattered pages throughout the book. Have them use the test on the first page of the novel, then again 10-20 pages in, and again 20-30 pages in. For each iteration of the test, have the students identify the words on the page that they can’t make sense of out of context. Train readers to use the five finger rule to determine whether a book is an appropriate challenge for their reading level: not too hard, not too easy--just right!Listening comprehension precedes reading comprehension, especially in the early stages of language acquisition. Thus, flooding your class with oral language that is comprehensible will lead to greater gains in reading comprehension. When a class launches into a novel and finds themselves in “The Hunger Games” (survival reading) students are struggling to hold on to anything that makes sense. Because they don’t know enough of the vocabulary to read with ease and enjoyment, the teacher must stop the momentum to teach vocabulary so that the class can move forward with the reading. This undermines the purposes of reading a class novel. Instead, look for opportunities to use the words that are used in the novel before your students ever flip open the front cover of the book. For example, if the word “avión” (plane) is used in the novel that you desire to read together, bring the word “avión” into a story that you do in class or into a conversation. Using vocabulary in a communicative anticipatory set (or series of anticipatory sets) will result in the ability to read a novel with fluency, where students are reading accurately and pleasurably, without distress. » TOPICAL KNOWLEDGE Prior knowledge of a topic helps a reader interpret text. It is high-leverage practice to prepare students to read by introducing topical information:

There is a virtual consensus that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension. Put simply, the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to read a text, understand it, and retain the information. Previous studies (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994; Shapiro, 2004) have shown that background knowledge plays an enormous role in reading comprehension (Hirsch, 2003).

Even a little background knowledge can help readers. Prior to the publication of La perezosa impaciente, two teachers, at the 5th and 6th grades respectively, read the novel with one of their classes. Each teacher read the story with their students in a single class period without any introduction to the topics in the book, then asked them comprehension questions about the book. On the next day, each teacher did the same thing with a different class--with one exception. Before jumping into the novel gave different classes topical information about sloths, lesser anteaters, and Colombia. The difference in reading comprehension levels between the classes that read the book without background knowledge and the classes that read the book after a quick topical lesson was significant. Many students in the first group were not able to really imagine what a “perezosa” (sloth) looked like, nor could they list any particular behaviors. Simple facts about sloths are woven into the fabric of the storyline: sloths live high up in the canopies of rainforest trees, they descend to poop once a week, they have a full ecosystem of bugs in their fur, and they are not able to walk. Once students were given this topic information or background knowledge, they were better able to read the story. Without background information, they were unsure as to why the main character sloth was acting the way she did. THE TRAFFIC LIGHT TEST Remembering that a whole class novel is only successful when all students in the class can read it with ease, conduct a Traffic Light Test. Pull a few students from three groups: high-performing, average, and lower-performing students. Tell them that they are going to read a few pages from a novel that you are thinking about reading with the class. Their mission is to read it and let you know whether they felt like they were sinking (struggling to understand) or swimming (understanding with confidence). Assign a few pages of the text for each of them to read.

  • To determine whether each student can read the text with fluency, have them time themselves reading the pages (to measure speed), and then have them give you a summary in English of what happened (to measure comprehension/accuracy).
  • Have each student identify vocabulary words from the selection that they didn’t know and couldn’t figure out (just as they do when applying the Five Finger Rule).
  • Ask a few questions about the characters.
  • Have them make a prediction.
  • If any topical knowledge is referenced in the selection, ask students what they know about it (ex: “What do you know about Colombia?” “What do you know about sloths?”).

Administer the traffic light test to a group of students of mixed performance in your language classes in order to determine whether they are ready to read a particular class novelYou will be able to quickly determine which of your student groups would be struggling if you were to use this novel with the whole class. By looking at the data from this test group, you can determine how much more time you might want to focus on building basic vocabulary:

  • GREEN = GO: Go for it! All three student groups are ready to read.
  • YELLOW = CAUTION: Spend time building background knowledge (topical and/or vocabulary) so that students at all performance levels will be able to read and enjoy this novel.
  • RED = STOP: More than just your low performing students needed more background knowledge--this novel is not a good fit for your class right now. Pick a different one!

If the lower students are comfortable with the sample pages, you have a good fit. The high-performing students will engage with an easy-for-them novel when you strategically bring in differentiated background readings, connections to other subject matter texts, and opportunities for rich class and small-group discussions. For a process to use with whole-class novels and English Language Arts, check out how to determine if your students are having difficulty with a text, present on Page 94 of A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts. READ WITH CONFIDENCE. We have given you three practical tools that you can use to evaluate student readiness to read a novel:

  • The Text Complexity Checklist (evaluate the text)
  • The Five Finger Rule (evaluate student readiness with respect to vocabulary)
  • The Traffic Light Test (evaluate overall student readiness)

When you take the time to evaluate potential class novels using these tools, you will be able to tackle a whole-class reading with confidence, knowing that your students are ready for the world of reading. Use three quick tests to evaluate whether or not your students are ready to read a class novel

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