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Comprehending Texts & Acquiring Language… Reflections#1

This new series of post investigates the workshop Comprehending Texts & Acquiring Language in Science presented 4 Jan 2018 at the ASE annual conference by Naomi Hennah (@MrsHennahand myself. 

This first instalment focuses on how the Word-Round following the reading activity was used summatively to investigate the text and to develop questioning as a transferable skill.

Introduction for non-delegates

The lesson Naomi and I presented last week at the ASE annual conference in Liverpool is designed to furnish learners with two important strategies for reading technical texts, specifically to help them answer a technical question. The two strategies are:

  1. questioning the text
  2. summarising the text.

This article deals with the first one, questioning. Both strategies have been shown to be effective after only a few sessions of instruction.*

When questioning a text students learn to ask questions as they read as an interior dialogue. During the paired reading that forms the bulk of our lesson, we externalise this dialogue to give students the opportunity to develop their questioning skills. Then, after reading is completed, we then round off with a Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern (CLIP) known as Word-Round to formalise and prioritise and share “summative” questions about the entire text. Aside from the impact on learning, generating questions form an excellent assessment tool on a very different level than providing mere answers.*

(The context of the problem of reading specific science texts has been discussed previously in Comprehending Texts & Acquiring Language in Science: Resources and The Chemistry of Collaboration: CL & Science at the ASE Annual Conference. Non-delegates might wish to refer to these before proceeding).

 

Word-Round: Understanding a CLIP

To recap, Cooperative Learning consists of students in small hand-picked teams or pairs working in fixed Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns (called CLIPs) selected and timed by teachers to achieve very specific aims – while affording students endless variation and excitement through changing materials and tasks. Cooperative Learning seamlessly integrates oral interventions, and fuses with meta-cognition and feedback, which potentially yield up to 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year according to the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit. (See Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning).

Thus, keep in mind that while the CLIP discussed in the following, the Word-Round, is tailored in this lesson to support these reading strategies in general and acquire one science text in particular, it potentially has infinite application.

In its generic form, it looks like this:

Word-Round
  1. The teacher presents a task with several possible answers.
  2. Team members take turns presenting an answer or solution in their team.

Its deceptive simplicity belies its usefulness and versatility: It may be used for everything from brainstorming to reviewing. Here, we explain the strategy in greater depth.

 

Word-Round in the context of the ASE reading lesson

At the ASE conference, the Word-Round followed the 20 minute Pair-Reading where delegates took turns to read and summarise/questions/comment on one paragraph or image at a time. Delegates will find the full plan in their handouts. Both handouts and the edited article on the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry used is found among the resources in the previous post.

Delegates in Pair-Reading.PNGTongue in cheek – Pair-Reading delegates at Thursday’s session.

In effect, while the Pair-Reading may be the core of the lesson, the Word-Round is its pinnacle. This means that other reading strategies you are familiar with might be used prior to the Word-Round, including individual reading. However, you will likely find that the peer support provided by Pair-Reading will greatly affect the level of outcomes, because it has given all students a chance to reflect and acquire understanding and vocabulary. (Pair-Reading will be discussed in a separate article.  Get notifications of related posts on Twitter).

So, following reading in pairs, small groups were tasked to identify the paragraph that would best help answer the two basic hinge questions we asked delegates to focus on while reading the text – “What was the problem with water?” and “How was it solved?”

To be clear, Naomi spent a great deal of time picking out the most interesting hinge questions before settling on these two. Runner-ups included meta-questions about how the text demonstrated collaboration as a key to success in science. But in a lesson where objectives are defined by curriculum and schemes of work coming up with hinge questions should not present such a challenge – as you are likely to find them predefined in your teaching materials.

 

Staging the Word-Round

From the Lesson Plan:

Individual task:

  1. students individually write as many questions as possible about the paragraph.
  2. Individuals priority order their questions.

Word-Round:

Each student proposes and explains to the team why their question should be asked. (Can loop multiple times as required).

The balance between individual and collaborative work is discussed in detail below. But when individuals prepare input for a collaborative activity, it is vital the students are not discussing their questions. As I said, “This is your time for reflection. Forget your mate, for a moment. What do you wonder about?”

On a side note: One issue that thankfully got as much attention in our workshop as the reading itself were the complex set of ancillary, transferable skills facilitated in the lesson.  One such of value to any professional teacher or scientist is comprehending the benefits and drawbacks of individual vs. collaborative work – and their appropriacy in context. As I explained to one delegate after the session, I have worked with a school where Year 5 children with two years of Cooperative Learning under their belt are able to assess and pick relevant interaction fitting team composition, task and materials. What would they be like in university if their high school picks up on it?!

These are the slide instructions for the tailored Word-Round, including scaffolding language in red:

Word-Round ASE

A simple, fast and effective way to share ideas within teams without jeopardising individual accountability, devolving the CLIP into disorganised, worthless “group work.” However, as simple and fast as it is, as Naomi has pointed out on numerous occasions, you need to train students to do this. Consistency is the key to success.

Note again that the objective is not to discuss, nor even at this stage to answer questions, but for each student to inquire into their own understanding (or lack thereof) and formalise this into questions and to consider their relevance and value.

Individual work vs collaborative work

Cooperative Learning is not an aim in itself – It has value only as a surgical tool to drive objectives, whether in individual lessons or in relation to whole-school improvement (explained by one headteacher in the video interview below) and should be seamlessly interwoven with other elements of the lesson. 

Adam Mason video

Headteacher at Fakenham Junior School, Adam Mason, discusses Cooperative Learning as a whole-school approach (more videos in the gallery)

Therefore, unless it forms an integral step of the CLIP (such as the ubiquitous Think-Pair-Share) time needs to be allocated for individual work: The question the teacher needs to ask himself is when to use Cooperative Learning and when to ask learners to work alone.

Some of the advantages of Cooperative Learning are outlined below:

  1. ensures that every student makes a relevant contribution
  2.  supports every learner’s own understanding, as well as that of peers
  3. ensures the learners work towards your lesson objectives.

Generally, to encourage thoughtful contributions, many Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns benefit from a period of individual work before the collaboration begins. This gives learners the opportunity to reflect or solve problems before they share with the group.

 

Generating questions

In this lesson, the activity is preceded by students individually writing as many questions as possible about the text they have read. A ‘question placemat’ as seen in the following slide can provide support for learners to ask relevant questions. It is vital that they all have at least one, even if it is copied from the board. 

Question the key section

For many students even copying a question from the board and having the courage to present it is actually a step up and slowly paves the way for individual work as the team members reward thank and praise contributions, a given in any Cooperative Learning classroom (For more information, see On the subject of social skills

So, some students will write many questions, others fewer. Some will be reflective, some may seem superficial. Regardless, the individual element of the task combined with the Word-Round following it provides good assessment information on:

  • the student’s understanding of the text
  • language/vocabulary
  • oral presentation skills
  • listening and reflection skills.

The way you phrase the task may be subtly used to guide the questions, or support ancillary objectives. For example, instead of “Ask questions about the text” try “Ask questions about how this text connects to previous lessons on this topic” or “…questions that you feel this text does not discuss in depth” or “…questions about the ethical implications about this scientific approach,” etc.

Be aware that asking questions is more difficult than it sounds. When learners ask questions, they need to identify what it is they don’t understand, or what makes them wonder.

The first one is a challenge to many pupils because it demands metacognition, i.e. awareness of one’s own learning process. The paired reading activity that preceded the independent task gives learners the opportunity to rehearse questioning, however, at first, students may not be aware how much they need to make use of each other at this stage. The individual task leaves them alone and accountable. They need to re-consider their pair discussion for clues. “What was that thing Bob said that I didn’t get?”

The second one is a challenge because, in order to wonder, you need to use both your imagination and previous knowledge. There can be no wondering about the text unless the text is held up against something else that may or may not quite fit. “I am wondering how XYZ relates to ABC in yesterday’s lesson.”

Finally, we strongly recommend that every question is signed. This provides written evidence for assessment and also lets the teacher hold individuals to account for the quality of their work.

Get notifications of the next posts on Twitter.

More general information at werdelin.co.uk, the business end of cooperativelearning.works.

Other articles of interest include:

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Note: Elements of this article are adapted from an original resource pack by Jakob Werdelin w. Ben Rogers.

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*) Please see ​On transfer as the goal in literacy ​Posted on​ “​Granted, and…​– thoughts on education” ​by ​grantwiggins​ 20 April 2015) for more detail on these.

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