Saturday, February 8, 2014

Using Short Excerpts for Close Reading and Leaving "Tracks" = Pure Magic!

I'm back! I'm alive! Life has been crazy, but I finally have time to sit and share with you something that I am so excited about!!

In the past several weeks, I've had a revelation in my reading instruction. I'm kicking myself that I didn't do this kind of thing earlier in the year because it is working wonders for my students. This might take me a while to fully explain, so if you're interested, strap yourself in!

Before I get ahead of myself, let me give you some back story first...

I have taught third grade reading for several years now. I LOVE teaching reading- mainly because I love to read and get kids hooked on great literature. I love the discussion and conversation that my students and I have when we are reading together. When we are discussing a text as a class, sparks fly, thoughtful responses are offered up, miraculous insights are passed between students- sometimes it's almost magical. I could almost cry thinking about the amazing experiences I have had with my students when we are analyzing a text together.

It's on this high that I send my students back to their seats with their own story to read with hopes that the same energy will continue during their independent reading. It never failed- the energy would fizzle. The kids would read the story, answer any questions I had for them, and then quickly return to their own independent reading book. Where was the excitement?! Where was the thinking? What I wanted was for the kids to get the same experience reading by themselves as they did with me.

I started experimenting with leaving symbols during reading. We had revisited a lesson from the Comprehension Toolkit and I reemphasized how reading is thinking. Just like animals leave tracks when they walk in the snow, we can leave tracks of our thinking as we read. As a class, we came up with some symbols to use when we read.

The kids came up with their own symbols they wanted to use for different thoughts. Each student made their own bookmark showing the symbols they would use and what they would mean. Then they took this idea and used sticky notes as they read to record their thinking.

The sticky note thing was working well, but it still didn't feel right. The kids were showing their thinking, but it just wasn't quite what I wanted. Then I remembered something!

A week before the Christmas break, we had a data meeting with a consultant. She threw out an idea that really stuck with me. At the time we were discussing the major problem that I'm sure every team in the world faces each year- how to teach the students who are reading significantly below level. She said in so many words- if the kids are supposed to be reading on a level M or N, let's pull a page straight out of a novel on that level and have them read that. The idea was meant to give the kids exposure to on-level text in a less overwhelming way. The idea intrigued me so much that I tried it at home over the break. I chose a random book from my shelf, flipped until I found what looked to be an interesting page, copied it, and read it. My brain was on fire!

Here's what happened: Because I had sneaked a glimpse of the title, I was already making some predictions before I even read the words. As I read, I had no idea what the plot was or who the characters were. The first time I read it, it made no sense to me. The second time I read it, my brain was revved up. I started piecing things together and inferring like crazy. After the third time I read, I had constructed what I thought to be a basic description of the characters and the plot. It was amazing! Remember, I literally copied ONE page from a novel- ONE!

I was so excited that I took the paper down to my husband and made him my guinea pig. This time, I didn't give him any clues about the title, I just handed him the paper and asked him to read it and tell me what he thought the book was about. He did the same kind of inferring and predicting and as a reading teacher, my heart was jumping up and down! I knew I wanted to try it with my kids.

When I got back to school, I went straight to the science fiction section of my classroom library and searched through a book that I thought would be interesting. I found a page where the characters were in the middle of a war and had somehow become trapped in a net in the trees. I re-typed the page and used it with my students. I talked with the students about using the same symbols we had used on our sticky notes on this one page.

One of the characters was holding a dagger to the throat of an elderly man. Immediately questions started flying- Why would someone be threatening an elderly man? How did they get there? What was this "war" about? What is a dagger? The conversations were priceless. The kids had to use context clues and text evidence in a way that they had never done before. They only had this one page of text to guide their thinking. Anything they said had to be tied to what was in front of them. Even for my struggling readers, the amount of text was not overwhelming, so they were excited and jumping into the discussion. Together, they had come up with an idea of the plot- just from reading one page! We had made inferences about each character based on their actions and words, inferred the meaning of unknown words, and made predictions about what had occurred before this page and what would happen after. At the end of our discussion the kids were literally begging to know which book that page came out of because they wanted to know what would happen next. Could it get any better than that?!

Not only was the discussion rich, but because the students had generated symbols to document their thinking, when we were finished, the tracks left behind on their paper showed evidence of all the great things we had discussed. It truly was one of the most amazing days I have had as a reading teacher. The rest of the week I found similar excerpts from books and we did the same thing with a new text each day.

By the end of the week, the students were so accustomed to leaving their tracks that when they read by themselves, the level of excitement was finally there! They spent time really analyzing the text and showing me their thoughts by using their symbols. I wouldn't let them share anything orally until they had left some kid of track on their paper to document that thought. Each student developed their own system of symbols and I was seeing the kids in a whole new way.  I was able to gain more insight into what the kids were thinking without them having to say a single word. I felt like I had finally found the answer to keeping up the engagement during independent reading!

The next week, I took this method into a story we have read every year from our Reading Street series called A Symphony of Whales. Rather than reading the story from the book like we normally do, I decided to take only key excerpts from the story to read each day.  I retyped the sections of the story I wanted the kids to read. No illustrations, no title, just the plain text.

The first day, we read the first two pages of the story. I didn't tell the kids anything to front load their thinking or stimulate their background knowledge. I literally said, "Today we will read a new story. I want you to read it to yourself and show your tracks as you read." And off they went.

As the students read, their pencils went flying. Because we had practiced using symbols to show our thinking so much in the previous weeks, they had the tools to show their thoughts. After the students read independently, they shared their tracks with a partner.

Because they had such a limited amount of information, the students had to make predictions about what the story would be about and make inferences about the character and plot. We learned that the character lives in a very cold place and their culture is very different than ours. The kids had to visualize using only the text evidence because there were no pictures. We learned that she possessed a special gift that no one else in the village had- the ability to hear whales. That's where we stopped the first day. We discussed that every story must have some sort of problem, so we made predictions about what the problem could be. The kids inferred that it might have something to do with the whales because she had this unique gift.

The next day, we read the next excerpt. Somehow the main character, Glashka, had come upon hundreds of whales trapped in a bay that was surrounded by ice. Because I had purposely left out the part that explained how she found them, the kids again had to infer. They also adjusted their predictions about the plot from the previous day now that we had this additional information about the whales. The kids explained to me that because of her gift, Glashka was able to hear the whales calling for help. She probably would take action to help them because she obviously cared about the whales. No guidance from me, no prompting. The entire discussion came from them. Because they didn't have the next part of the story, they automatically made predictions. It was beautiful!

The following day we read the next section. This day I finally remembered to take pictures of what some of the kids were marking on their papers.

As you can see from the pictures, the text is plain. This is important because the kids have nothing to guide their thinking but the words. You can also see the type of thinking being shown. The kids are using symbols to show their surprise or confusion, but also leaving phrases to show evidence of inference or connections. Without writing long sentences or responses, I get a glimpse into their true understanding of the text. 

What you can't see from these pictures is evidence of the rich discussion that came after the reading. Because there is only a small amount of text, the kids have to use their tracks as a springboard for discussion. On this particular day, we gained even more insight to the problem in the story. The whales are trapped and getting weaker by the day. We also see a key trait of the main character displayed as she uses her own limited food supply to feed the whales. Seeing that the kids labeled this without any prompting from me shows that they are truly thinking as they read. 

On the back of the papers, the students had the choice to write additional thoughts, responses, or predictions. I don't have pictures of those, but you can trust that what the students' responses were more rich and authentic than anything I could have prompted them to write with my own questions. They were already putting pieces of the story together and predicting how the story would end. Most of them already noticed what I would have questioned them about! 

The last day of the week, we read the last excerpt I had chosen. It showed that the whales had been saved and set free. I purposely left out the part that described just how that came to be. The kids went wild with predictions. 

I then revealed to the kids that this story actually came out of our basal reader. The kids  jumped up and begged to read it. Yes- begged!!  I had left out many major pieces of the story, so the kids couldn't wait to read it all the way through to see if their predictions were correct. They almost couldn't contain their excitement as they searched feverishly through the table of contents to find the story. When they finally found it and saw the illustrations, many "I knew it's!" and "OOhhhs" and "So this is what it looks like's" and "I was right's!" filled the air. It was a truly magical moment. Never before had I had students so eager to read a story. Never before had they had such an appreciation of the illustrations and how they added to our understanding of the story. The room was silent as the kids soaked up every word of the story and analyzed every illustration. 

This week we followed the same format with another story from our basal. I wish I would have taken pictures of the kids' tracks this week because they were even more refined than the week we read about the whales. It just gets better and better!  

This simple strategy has majorly shifted my instruction. When I use excerpts like this, the students are truly guiding their own thinking. Even when they read a text silently to themselves, I can see thinking that I used to only hear in our group discussions. Hopefully I can remember my camera on Monday so I can show you more of what I'm talking about. :)

I urge you to try this strategy with your students just to see! I never imagined that I would be getting these kinds of results, but it is truly the best thing that has ever happened to my reading instruction!

Happy Saturday! 


  1. I LOVE THIS!! I am so going to print this post and use it with my 4th graders, many of whom are reading at a late 2nd-mid 3rd grade level right now. This is epic! Thank you SO much for sharing!

    1. Raye,

      Good luck with it! I am having so much fun!!! I'd love to hear how it goes! Pick a good juicy passage to do first and they'll be hooked!


  2. I am a 5th grade teacher and have been using "tracks" for a couple years. I am going to try this strategy this week. I can't wait-Thanks!


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