Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Best of Frank Serafini: Rethinking Comprehension


I would like teachers to focus their attention on comprehending, not comprehension. Comprehending is an action verb, connoting a process, whereas comprehension is a noun, suggesting a thing or commodity. Too often our instruction, assessments and classroom discussions focus on some amount of knowledge or attribute that can be measured or carried away from a reading event. I would like to see teachers focus on the process of making sense, not simply the residuals of reading.

To offer a definition, I see comprehending as a process of actively constructing meaning in transaction with texts in a particular social context. This definition, which was constructed through my own research and experiences, the writings of various reading and literary theorists and reading researchers, including Louise Rosenblatt, Frank Smith, David Pearson, Kathleen McCormick, Allan Luke, and Robert Scholes, will provide the foundation for the lessons contained throughout this book.

I believe that reading, namely constructing meaning with texts, is both an individual cognitive process, and a social process that derives meaning from the contexts in which it occurs. Comprehending is a sustained cognitive and social activity that involves the successful orchestration of language and thinking processes. These processes begin with the noticing or perception of textual and visual elements and ends with the construction and reconsideration of meanings. I use the plural “meanings” to suggest that the meanings constructed by readers are temporary, multiple, and open to revision.
Here are several additional assumptions on which my definition of reading comprehension is based:
·      There is no unmediated access to texts, texts are read by readers that come to the process with particular experiences, understandings, and knowledge. The book does not read itself, it must be read by someone.
·      Meanings and interpretations are always socially constructed and historically embedded in local and particular contexts. In other words, we never read in a vacuum. Readers always read some particular text, at some particular time and place, with an author and the language and history of the reader’s culture and experiences involved in the process.
·      Meanings and interpretations are always derived in political, social, historical and cultural contexts. In other words, particular interpretations or meanings work towards particular interests. Each and every time we read a text we bring our own experiences and our histories of who we are to the reading event. These socio-cultural factors affect how we read, what we read, and the meanings and interpretations we construct with texts.
·      There is no transcendent authority (objective presence) to refer to when attempting to establish the “truth” of a particular reading. We choose to acknowledge particular readings as more or less viable. Main ideas are constructed, not discovered by close examination of the text. In other words, when someone in authority, for example a test maker, decides what the main idea of a text selection, this idea is endorsed by that authority. Main ideas are created, not found.
·      Every classroom is a site for the production of meanings. Every interpretive community has some allegiance to a particular literary tradition or perspective, and each literary practice functions to close off possible readings (meanings) from other perspectives. In some classrooms, being able to find the one, correct main idea may be endorsed, whereas in another classroom, being able to defend alternative interpretations may be valued. Each classroom has its own set of rules for determining what is valued as a reader and expresses these values through the expectations set and the experiences provided and endorsed.

I believe, there is no singular, objective truth contained within a text, but many truths, each with its own authority and its own warrants for viability. Additionally, since there is no “objective” meaning of a text, comprehension is concerned with the viability of interpretations, how interpretations become useful, and the social negotiations of these various meanings. There are multiple meanings and interpretations that arise in transactions with texts; some viable, some not. The Reading Workshop, with its constituent readers, becomes the social milieu in which the viability of a particular interpretation is discussed, challenged and warranted. Reading comprehensions instruction should focus on understanding texts from a variety of perspectives and learning how these perspectives endorse and dismiss particular meanings and interpretations.
            In order for readers to construct meaning in transaction with texts, they must understand the codes and conventions of written language, become familiar with the vocabulary used by the author, and be able to connect the text with their own experiences and background knowledge. Jonathan Culler suggests one’s literary competence or comprehension is based on a readers’ understandings of the codes and conventions used by the author. Schema theorists believe that reading comprehension is the ability of a reader to accommodate and assimilate new information from a text into one’s existing schemas and background knowledge.
            In every reading event there are four major components or perspectives:
  • the text
  • the reader
  • the author
  • the context (both immediate and sociocultural)
Each literary theory highlights one of these components, while still maintaining the presence of the others. For example, reader response theories, as the name suggests, focus on the role of the reader in constructing meaning, their experiences, cultures and psychological makeup. Historical criticism focuses on the life and times of the author to understand how the text was created and the possible meanings available. Socio-culturally based literary theorists focus, not on the reader as an individual agent acting independently, but the culture and contexts in which the reader resides and operates. The New Critics focus on the text in and of itself. This perspective has dominated literature education for many decades. Each and every literary perspective focuses on one aspect of the reading event, trying to understand how that component plays into the meanings constructed and available, while downplaying the other components.

For me, the literal text is the point of departure in comprehending and interpreting a text, not the finish line. Reading is about appropriating or contextualizing the meanings constructed in transaction with texts into one’s own experiences or knowledge base. It is this connection between the text we encounter and the world in which we live that is the focus of many of our lessons described throughout the book. The texts is where we begin, not where we end.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Best of Frank Serafini: Assessment Windows


I have used the term “windows,” as many other educators have before me, to describe the assessment instruments used to generate information about the students in my class. I chose the term windows because it describes the importance of observation and the limited scope of any one assessment technique. Teachers “look through” these assessment windows at their students during actual literacy events. These assessments are observational guides, designed to hone teachers powers of observation and make their assessments more meaningful.
There is no single window, no single assessment, that provides access to the complete child. In other words, each window reveals information about a child as much as it conceals information. Each assessment window calls forth different aspects of a child’s behaviors, abilities and dispositions. It is only through the use of a variety of assessment windows that a more extensive understanding of a child’s literate abilities emerges.
When through a window, we often find a bit of reflection of ourselves bouncing back. It is the same with these assessment windows. As we generate information about our students, we also generate information about our teaching, our classroom and ourselves. For example, when we review the artifacts collected in our students’ portfolios (treasuries), we can reflect on what we have taught during the year, what has been given the most attention and possibly what was missing.
            In addition, I have chosen the term window because assessment windows, just like windows in the real world, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some windows offer us a wide view of the world and some only a small portal through which to observe the events around us. It is the same with our assessment windows. Let’s say you were going to buy a new house and you wanted to get a sense of what it was like, but your realtor was running late and all you could do was walk around the house and look through the windows. No single window would allow you to see everything inside the house. However, by walking around and looking through a variety of windows, from a variety of vantage points, you might be able to build up an understanding of what the house contained. Eventually, your realtor arrives and opens the door for you to enter the premises, wander around and get a better sense of what is actually in the house. This works great for home buying. Unfortunately, we cannot open the door and wander around in our students’ minds or their experiences. All we can do is look through the assessment windows we create to understand what they are doing, are able to do, and need more support in doing.
            I have also purposefully chosen to use the term “generate” rather than the terms “gather” or “collect” to describe the process by which information is produced utilizing these assessment windows. I chose the word generate because it describes how teachers actively select, observe, create and revise the information they use to make instructional decisions. This information does not come to us ready made, it is generated through the processes and instruments we select and the knowledge base we bring to the observed learning events. Different assessment windows generate different information. In other words, we are only able to see our students through the windows and opportunities we make available. Each window limits our view, and at the same time makes observation and generating information possible. Because of this, we need to be careful about the assessment windows and techniques we select because they determine in part how we come to know our students as readers.
Sources of Information
            In order to understand the variety of assessment windows we might utilize to generate information, we need to first consider the types of information that are available to the classroom teacher. In other words, what will we observe, where and when will we make our observations, what information is of value, and how does this information present itself? Basically, we have available to us the same types of information that qualitative researchers draw upon when conducting research studies. The three main sources of information we may draw upon to understand students’ literate abilities are:
  1. Artifacts – the products students create when reading and responding to what is being read. Anything tangible that can be collected and put in a portfolio is an artifact. For example, literature response notebook entries, charts, response activities, or book reviews are all types of artifacts.
  2. Observations – the notes we create by watching students engage in literate activities. For example, observing students’ responses during whole group read alouds, notes taken during a literature discussion, general observational notes about students’ reading preferences or selection of books, or notes taken when listening to a student read aloud.
  3. Interactions – the discussions and communications we have with students on a daily basis. Unlike observations, interactions require the teacher to interact with the student, rather than passively observe. This type of information is generated by asking particular questions from an interview protocol, or conducting daily “check-in conferences” with students. 
These sources of information are found in a variety of settings and provide the classroom teacher with the information necessary to make more effective decisions regarding instructional approaches, learning experiences and interventions. For example, we can observe students preparing to read, selecting a book and choosing to sit in a particular place to read. We can use a particular instrument to observe readers during the act of reading, or we can look at what they create when they have finished reading. The following chart (Figure 2.2) gives some examples of the types of questions teachers can ask about readers before, during, and after reading a text.

Sources of Information About Reading
1. Before Reading
What strategies do students use for selecting a text?
How does a student approach a text? (Do they skim through it? Read the title page? Look at the end pages and other peritextual information?)
Are students able to state their purposes for reading a particular text?
When and where do students choose to read?
2. During Reading
Does the student demonstrate immediate emotional reactions - laugh, cry etc.
Is the student able to code or mark important passages in the text during reading for further inquiry?
Is the student able to stop and this aloud during his or her reading? What does the student talk about?
As a student reads a text, what strategies does he or she employ? Is the student fluently reading, or is her or his reading choppy? Is the student able to adjust his or her rate of reading to ensure understanding?
3. After Reading:
Is a student able to talk about the text when finished? Can he or she paraphrase or summarize what has been read? Does the student draw inferences from the text?
Can students write a response entry in their literature response notebook?
Are students able to answer questions about what has been read?
Can students respond in other ways (write a book review, draw a picture, act ot the story) to what has been read?

We, as teachers, have available to us a wide variety of information that can be used to provide evidence of a student’s reading processes, preferences and strategies. Each source provides a different type of information which helps us to come to know our students as readers and literate beings. Various assessment windows or data generating techniques are used to tap into these sources of information, and it is to these assessment windows and observational techniques I now turn.
Efficient Assessment Windows
            I have relied upon many different assessment windows over my years of experience as a classroom teacher in order to come to know my students as readers and writers. Some windows have generated a wealth of information, while others were not worth the time I spent using them, either because they took too much time away from my instruction, or the information they provided was not very helpful in understanding my students. The windows I will share with you in this chapter are the ones that provided the most information with the least amount of interruption to my teaching. In addition, they generated information during actual reading events, not the contrived scenarios that mimic real reading that are part of so many standardized tests. It is because of these characteristics I call them “efficient” assessment windows. 

My Top Ten Efficient Assessment Windows
  1. Observational Records
  2. Observational Checklists
  3. Reading Interviews and Conferences
  4. Reading Response Notebooks
  5. Oral Reading Analyses
  6. Think Aloud Protocols
  7. Retellings
  8. Reflection Logs
  9. Book Reviews
  10. Treasuries