Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing and Discussing Text

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Prompt students to become the sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers they need to be to achieve higher learning. The authors explore the important relationship between text, learner, and learning. With an array of methods and assignments to establish critical literacy in a discussion-based and reflective classroom, you'll encourage students to find meaning and cultivate thinking from even the most challenging expository texts.

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Introduction: Comprehension Occurs Through Text-Based Analysis and Discussion

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WITHOUT QUESTION, INFORMATION IS more accessible today than ever before. Digital sources make it possible to locate anything from the works of Shakespeare to those of Stephenie Meyer within minutes. And despite the grave pronouncements of the death of the newspaper, we see people voraciously consuming up-to-the-minute news and information through a variety of electronic devices.But access to information in the absence of critical thought is a dangerous recipe. No one would allow an untrained driver behind the steering wheel of a race car, yet we regularly put information in front of children and adolescents with little regard for how they will question, discuss, and formulate learned opinions about it. We leave students to superficially extract information about the text and then move almost immediately to their own connections. During class discussions, consumed by connections to their personal experiences, students veer off to the more interesting topic of another student’s story, never to return to the text that started it all. Fourth-graders leave Love That Dog (Creech, 2001) to talk about their own loss of a beloved pet but don’t discuss the poem “Love That Boy,” by Walter Dean Myers, which is foundational to the book. Eleventh-graders read The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck, 1939/1992) and talk about the time they saw the film version but fail to recognize the author’s sociopolitical viewpoint. Observing a student talking about a text is akin to watching an untrained driver swerve across three lanes to take the first exit she sees, never to return to the freeway that leads to her destination.

 

Chapter 1 Readers and Texts: Why Both Are Necessary for Understanding

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“ONE TIME, AT BAND CAMP …” You know where this is going. The student is going to make a tangentially related connection between himself and the text, based on a personal experience that few, if any, other students have had. Although the student has comprehended the gist of what the author has shared, this personal connection may overshadow the message of the text and move him further and further away from the text and what the author had to say. When this happens, reading becomes primarily about the reader’s experience and not about maintaining a relationship between the text and the reader, who as a result may fail to comprehend the complexity of the information being presented.

But making the personal connection is not the problem. In fact, making connections is what readers often do when comprehending and enjoying a text. As we will see later in this chapter, making connections is one of the cognitive strategies readers use to understand what they are reading. The problem is that less-able readers do not return to the text to compare and contrast their personal experience with that of the author (Cordón & Day, 1996). Either they have not been taught the reasons for returning to the text or they have not been held accountable for applying them.

 

Chapter 2 Argumentation: Gateway to Text-Based Analysis and Discussion

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CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING EXCHANGE, which took place during group-work time in a life sciences class that was studying a botany unit. The students were supposed to be researching the health benefits and claims of food supplements. Bill had heard about Chia seeds, a very popular supplement in California. Amber had not heard of them. They each read a little bit of text from the Internet and started arguing almost immediately:

BILL:

But four out of five doctors recommend it.

AMBER:

So what? That doesn’t mean anything.

BILL:

Yes it does.

AMBER:

Nah-hah.

BILL:

Yes-hah.

This squabble is not the type of interaction we’re looking for in classrooms where students read like detectives. Bill and Amber had clearly lost their ability to share their perspectives, provide evidence and claims, offer counterclaims, and disagree without being disagreeable. They did not return to the text to analyze the author’s perspectives, nor did they attempt to synthesize this new information with any they had gleaned from publications they had read previously. If they had, their conversation would have been different. They might have sounded more like their peers, who had experience with argumentation:

 

Chapter 3 Analyzing and Discussing Narrative Texts

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“I CAN JUST PICTURE THIS. There’s our main man, Romeo, standing on the street. He’s talking with Juliet, but she doesn’t know who’s talking. I know this because he says, ’My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself/Because it is an enemy to thee,’ and I’m thinking that he doesn’t want to be recognized because of the family problems. He wants to talk with her, but he knows that he can’t. How would you feel if you wanted to tell someone that you liked them but were afraid to?” asks ninth-grade English teacher Cindy Lin. The students immediately turn to one another and make a text-to-self connection, which redirects the focal point from Romeo and Juliet to the students’ life experiences:

JUAN:

I had that happen to me. I didn’t want to talk to the parents because they didn’t like me, maybe because I’m Mexican.

ALLISON:

Really? I thought it was just me. For me, it was because of my hair. Remember when I dyed it bright red?

 

Chapter 4 Analyzing and Discussing Expository Texts

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WHEN ANGELICA ASKED HER TEACHER for a book about stars, he asked, “What kind of stars? You know, that word has a lot of different meanings. Are you thinking about the night sky or famous people?” Angelica, who was used to her teacher’s encouraging her to use specific terminology, responded, “I want to read more about celestial stars, like the ones in our textbook.” Her teacher replied, “Oh, excellent. I think you’ll find some very good information about these massive, luminous balls of plasma that are held together by gravity in this book,” and he handed her A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky (Driscoll, 2004). “Wow, cool! Thanks!” Angelica exclaimed as she left her sixth-grade science class on her way to humanities.

When she got to her humanities class, her teacher, Mr. Ryan, noticed the book she was carrying and asked, “Did you pick that one? I didn’t know you were into stars.” Angelica replied, “I wasn’t, until we read about these balls of plasma in the sky. Now I want to find out more and more. Why?” Mr. Ryan responded, “I think there’s a book in here someplace about Tycho Brahe [Gow, 2002], the astronomer who built his own observatory way back in the 1500s, medieval times.” Angelica, with a look of astonishment on her face, asked, “Really, they’ve been able to study stars, I mean plasma held together with gravity, for that long? Can you help me find that book?”

 

Chapter 5 Analyzing and Discussing New-Media Texts

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AFTER DIANE AND SEVERAL of her students took a field trip to see The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, they had a conversation about some early cultures’ fascination with drinking human blood. People in these cultures believed that drinking the blood of another human enhanced their vitality or “lifeblood.” Although the idea of cannibalism in any form seemed horrific to these students, when presented as a behavioral possibility for Stephenie Meyer’s 104-year-old Edward Cullen, it evoked a more sympathetic response:

LADONNA:

I know it’s a form of cannibalism, and many prehistoric groups in the South Pacific thought this was okay, but really, Edward would never do anything so awful as suck blood if he could help it—especially never Bella’s.

KIKI:

I know, huh. He loves her.

ANGEL:

He would even fight Jacob for her.

ANDY:

He’s still a vampire. You forget this cuz you be thinkin’ he’s handsome.

 

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