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Making the Most of Short Texts

Mary Lee Hahn

The Common Core State Standards are still on the horizon for 5th grade in my district. But, like the first time you see the distant, shadowy shape of Pikes Peak when you are driving west on I-70, the CCSS are definitely there, and I know they are going to get huge fast.

I can afford to dabble for now, but I am trying to make my dabbling efficient enough so that I will have a bank of lessons, strategies, and understandings ready to go when we are in our implementation year.

One of my dabblings last year was with close reading. Here’s what The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) has to say about teaching close reading:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011, p. 7)

Text of Sufficient Complexity

My first job was to find a variety of short nonfiction texts. My go-to resource for this is Highlights Magazine. Each month’s issue has short fiction and nonfiction at a variety of reading levels. “Text of sufficient complexity” in my fifth-grade classroom it meant choosing texts that ranged from about a second-grade reading level to well beyond a fifth-grade level. Differentiating with multiple texts allowed me to give every reader in my room the experience of “text of sufficient complexity.” Complexity looks different for different readers. In the end, I chose six different articles so that groups could be comprised of 3-4 students each.

Read and Reread Deliberately

My students’ first task was to read their article by themselves, pencil in hand for underlining key ideas, circling unknown words, and jotting notes in the margins. The goal of this first reading was to be able to complete the overarching main idea statement with which we begin every summary: “This article is about . . .”

The next day, students met with their group. First, they each shared their “This article is about . . .” statement and backed up their thinking with evidence from the text. Next, I asked them to reread the article from beginning to end as a group, comparing their thinking as they went along.  Their final job the second day was to agree on a main idea statement and then go on to write the rest of the summary of their article as a group. As I observed the groups and saw the depth of their thinking as they collaborated on the written summary, negotiating idea order, sentence structure, and word choice, I realized that I should not have saved this activity for so late in the year!

Central Ideas and Key Supporting Details Trump Words, Sentences, Ideas, and Craft

The summary writing was enough to get this experiment in close reading to the level of understanding “central ideas and key supporting details.” If I had followed the steps in PARCC’s description of close reading, we would have moved on the third day to studying the articles for craft -- looking at the words used, the flow of the sentences, and the way the authors developed their ideas “over the course of the text.” However, in our unit of study on cause and effect some students were able to identify examples of cause and effect in a text independently, while others were still struggling with this complicated relationship between actions and events. After two days of working with the same group on the same article, I had an opportunity too rich to discard -- functioning groups and a well-known text. So, rather than having students start over with a different text for the new task of practicing cause and effect, I handed back their articles on the third day. “Again?!?” they chorused. As far as they were concerned, we had “been there -- done that.” I gave each group a half-sheet cause and effect T-chart with room for four examples. I asked them to see if they could come up with at least two. They got right to work (no delay for reading and understanding the text, or negotiating group dynamics) and every group brought me more than two examples that every member of the group could defend with evidence from the text.

After the success I had with using the same text three times over the course of three days for independent reading, close reading/summary writing, and cause and effect, I didn’t feel too bad about substituting the last step in PARCC’s description of close reading for one that fit my instructional flow.

As it turned out, we came back to these articles one more time, for a fun experiment in applying “Bracketology” to the ideas of main idea, details, and determining importance, but that’s a whole different article. Stay tuned for part two.

Mary Lee Hahn

Mary Lee Hahn has been teaching 4th or 5th graders for more than 20 years. She is the author of Reconsidering Read-Aloud (Stenhouse Publishers). Mary Lee and her colleague in the Dublin City Schools, Franki Sibberson, blog about their reading lives at A Year of Reading.