In September and October, I focused heavily on how to build vocabulary and decoding skills in our emergent bilingual readers through morphology and phonics instruction. This month, I want to dive deeper into perhaps the most misunderstood practice in schools today: Close Reading. Specifically, I want to show you how to use syntax to read closely with your students, so they can build comprehension.
Most teachers do some form of Close Reading every day, yet students’ reading levels in New York and across the country remain stubbornly low. Despite daily 90 minute ELA blocks, many (most?) students – both those identified as ELLs and those as non-ELLs – have trouble comprehending and analyzing text.
what is syntax?
Syntax is the way in which we combine words to form grammatical messages. Grammatical means that the words are in a typical order that makes it possible for us to interpret the message to achieve maximum comprehension.
In English, we like to have a Subject (the who or the what of a sentence); a Verb (the is what or does what?); and often an Object too (the who/what of the verb); for example, Students (S) learn (V) English (O).
Onto this basic SVO structure, we add clauses and phrases that answer Wh-questions: Where? When? How? Why? For example, Students (S) learn (V) English (O) at school (Where?) because it is important (Why?)
Readers parse sentences syntactically to comprehend text. With emergent bilingual students, we need to explicitly teach them to use syntax to read closely.
what is close reading?
What is “Close Reading” and where did the term come from? It emerged around 2009, when the Common Core standards were introduced to schools.
The New York State Next Generation Anchor Standards list as Reading Anchor Standard 1 for key ideas and details:
Standard 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly/implicitly and make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Let’s use an effective classroom strategy for text analysis to take this apart:
Reflect for one moment and rephrase, in your own words, what the words in the standard mean.
As a linguist, reading specialist, and educator, I interpret the standard in the following way:
- when it says to determine what the text says “explicitly” and make “logical inferences”, it means literal comprehension – answering the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a text. In other words, use syntax to read closely.
- When it says “implicitly” and to “support conclusions”, it means going beyond basic comprehension and analyzing specific questions that go beyond the literal meaning of the text.
Of course, teachers have always been doing this – but now the state has identified and defined the practice explicitly, and targets this practice on ELA exams.
what does close reading mean for Emergent bilinguals?
I believe the missing piece to successful Close Reading for emergent bilingual students is Step 1 – the literal comprehension of the text. This boils down to 3 things for teachers to target during instruction:
- develop more background knowledge/schema around the topic of the text;
- target and pre-teach key vocabulary using pictures;
- take sentences apart syntactically around the Who/what? (Subject) Was what/did what? (Predicate) of sentences.
Teachers are under so much pressure to teach to the skill, and Language Arts curricula are usually so bad or misguided, that the focus is always on “advanced” skills like examining figurative language or analyzing character traits.
The thing is, if you don’t have a picture in your mind to place the text in a context; if you don’t know the meaning to the most important words to discuss the text; and if you can’t take a sentence apart to determine the subject (Who or What the sentence is about – the Noun Phrase) and the predicate (what the noun is or does – the Verb Phrase), then you can’t achieve ‘explicit’ comprehension of the text to make ‘logical inferences’.
Emergent bilinguals, more than most students, need to develop background knowledge and vocabulary pre-reading. This could be as simple as showing them a picture that represents the essential concept of the passage and asking them what they think or know about this picture. Then, select 3 important words and discuss what they mean in relation to this text.
Teachers! download my free sample 6th grade ELA lesson on I am Malala, with links to a bilingual student pictionary, video of me modeling the Close Read, and lesson planner template!
In the weeks to follow, I will take you through the syntax of sentences, and model for you how to help your students use syntax to read closely. Stay tuned! Comments, questions? Let me know below in the comments section!