|Going beyond the 'Unseen'
by Erica Garb, PhD
A. What reading comprehension is really all about, and how students learn
B. What promotes effective learning? The '10 commandments':
- Is 'doing an unseen' really comprehension?
All teachers have an important interest in common. We are responsible for going into the classrooms of today to prepare our students for the world of tomorrow. It is simply no longer enough to have students graduate with a bagrut certificate: Our mandate is to help our students acquire the skills they will need in the 21st century, where the demands are increasing for a flexible and highly educated work force.
One major skill is the ability to read and fully understand what is being read, a skill, which once acquired, can be transferred to other languages, and which provides the basis for all further education. As English teachers, we can define our mandate as helping our students to acquire this skill.
But, you might ask: Is this not what we are doing at the moment? Well, in one pertinent experiment, teachers gave students texts without any questions attached. The students - all of whom were quite competent at 'doing unseens' - were asked to read the texts.
Then they were asked, "Did you understand the text?" The replies were, "Yes!".
"Are there any words you don't understand?" The teachers then translated the vocabulary that the students were not sure about. Usually there were very few of these items. The students were then asked global questions, such as, 'What is the main idea?' 'What does the writer want to show by saying..', 'What is the writer's opinion about ...', 'What is this text about?' , etc.
To our horror, we realized that the students had not the slightest idea of how to go about understanding the text. The students were equally horrified: They had always relied on questions to guide them in making sense of the material. But in 'real life', texts do not come with guiding questions!
- The Cognitive Work of Reading
Let us have a look for a moment at the difference between 'doing an unseen', and reading a text 'cold turkey', so to speak. When you answer the questions relating to an unseen reading text, you do not have to do the real cognitive work of reading: At no stage do students actually have to approach a text and find out for themselves how the text is structured, or what the main ideas or supporting details are. Rather, the questions provide them with clues to finding out what we - the examiners - think. For example, a question might ask: What is the main idea of a text or paragraph? You are offered four alternatives, two of which will usually be inapplicable: The cognitive work of arriving at the main idea has virtually been done via the questions. Alas, as our students often tell us, one can often answer quite a lot of questions without really understanding the text.
- Learning to learn
How did such a situation arise? Williams and Burden made the following observation:
Curricula have tended to concentrate on imparting knowledge ... and have neglected the teaching of how to learn. In language teaching, for example, we have often tended to focus on teaching the form of the target language ... at the cost of teaching people how to learn the language." (Williams and Burden, 1997, p.147).
I suggest that if students learn to read and understand texts in English without questions to guide them, not only will they have acquired a valuable skill which they will be able to transfer to reading in their home language, but they will also easily be able to answer 'unseen' questions. Furthermore, if students learn 'how to learn', they will be able to transfer this learning behaviour to a variety of other domains.
What do we mean by learning? For the purposes of this discussion, I shall use key criteria suggested in the European Union Report of 2000, criteria which are considered the mandate of all domains: In brief, learning is regarded as the development of transferable problem-solving and thinking skills. EFL departments all over the world are now adopting this mandate, and making radical changes in the way they approach the teaching of reading EFL, a skill which will be of primary importance to the educated person of the 21st century.
We at the Aguda l'kidum hinuch (Association for the Advancement of Education) have been working for some time with this mandate in mind.
The Aguda runs courses at about 40 pre-academic colleges for students who have failed to acquire the credentials necessary to gain admission to institutes of higher education. The EFL department has its own syllabus, and textbooks, and constructs its own bi-annual bagrut exams. Our mandate is purely reading comprehension for academic purposes, and the focus is on helping students to acquire transferable problem-solving and thinking skills as part of the process of their EFL instruction. Thus, instead of being guided by ready-made questions, we aim to help students to acquire transferable guides, in the form of strategies which will help them to understand texts for themselves.
The methodology is based on certain principles that have proven to be effective for promoting learning. We try to ensure that as many of these elements as possible are implemented in classroom activities, and materials are adapted according to these principles.
I shall briefly discuss these '10 commandments', or elements of effective learning, and then introduce an example of an activity that utilizes as many of them as possible. It would be impossible to cover all of the concepts comprehensively, so please refer to the bibliography to augment this discussion.
- Student activity (Piaget)
- Problem-solving assignments (Festinger)
- Materials within the ZPD (Vygotsky)
- Spiral curricula (Piaget)
- Teacher and peer mediation (Vygotsky, Feuerstein )
- Cognitive Strategies (Feuerstein et al)
- Metacognition (Flavell)
- Models (Bliss)
- Social dynamics (Vygotsky)
- Transfer (Perkins, Salomon)
1. Student activities
C. Activity illustrating the '10 commandments' of learning
According to Piaget, understanding develops through active interaction with the environment, and individuals construct their own knowledge through their own activity. Materials and methods should therefore be student-centered, inductive, designed for maximum student activity and allow for a high percentage of student as opposed to teacher input.
2. Problem-solving assignments
Materials which are constructed in the form of problem-solving activities are more likely to produce active engagement on the part of students: Both Festinger and Piaget have commented that a state of disequilibrium (or 'puzzlement') is a potent stimulus for learning.
According to Piaget, learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon previously established mental models. New information or concepts must be accommodated within existing mental schemas in order for an individual to integrate and make sense of them, and curricula should thus be spiral rather than linear in nature, with each new activity being based to some extent on previous learning experiences.
3. Zone of proximal development & 4. spiral curricula
In order for students to tackle assignments as actively and independently as possible, it is essential that the materials should fall within what Vygotsky describes as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
Basically, this means that assignments should not be so easy that students do not need to apply strategies in order to master them, for in this case no learning will take place. On the other hand, if material is overwhelming and does not offer enough known starting points (see below) to the students, they might be able to complete the assignments, for example by looking up every word in the dictionary and 'reading' the text in Hebrew, but again, no real learning will have taken place.
Thus, for learning to take place, tasks should be arranged so that they are challenging, - students will need to apply their reading strategies - , but within the students' capacity to solve--assisted, if necessary--by a minimum of mediation. Students should be able to find at least one known starting point - some material that is familiar to them. Material where too many elements are unknown is counter-productive. You will see this point, among others, illustrated in the Activity in Section C.
5. Teacher and peer mediation & 9. Social Dynamics
Vygotsky suggests that the ZPD consists of that area where learners are challenged by tasks that they cannot immediately perform, but at which they will be successful given a minimum of mediation (Feurstein). Or, as Ericsson points out, learning takes place through 'effortful study', which he defines as continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond ones' competence - but not too far beyond.
Mediation is a key concept. This mediation may be provided either by a more competent adult or peer, or by the materials themselves.
The teacher as mediator intervenes only when and if the student is unable to solve a task alone. A mediator first offers suggestions, which will guide the student towards using his own resources, or external sources (models, dictionary, previous exercises, etc.) Students usually do not want to 'dig back' to 'learned material', and teachers may regard this as a waste of class time, but if used infrequently, it is a useful method of revision. Teachers could quickly find the relevant place for the students and say, for example, 'We had that word here.' The familiar context will often act as a reminder.
Only if these resources are ineffective will the mediator intervene directly, (for example, supplying a word not available from context for a student who has not yet developed dictionary skills; reminders about a rule or strategy, etc.) Such mediation, applied judiciously so as not to lead to frustration, will develop the students' confidence, independence, and sense of control over their own learning, Fellow students, acting as resources and models (Vygotsky), are powerful learning tools, because the peer group is an important social factor in the lives of students, and students often learn better from each other than from an authority figure. Research increasingly indicates that for adolescents and young adults, group activities and the establishment of personal relationships are a high priority (Elkonin 1971). This 'obstacle' can be turned into a vehicle for learning through the use of group work activities, where different students are responsible for different segments of problem-solving, and where students act as mediators for each other. Thus 'the desire to engage in interpersonal contacts … is employed as a means for achieving the goals of learning (Kozulin 1994). Moreover, the role of the teacher then changes from authoritarian figure to that of senior member of the group, advisor and participant. It also leaves the teacher free to mediate where most urgently needed.
6. Cognitive strategies
What does mediation consist of? The main function of the mediator is to introduce students to the cognitive strategies required for learning each particular domain, and to provide sufficient and appropriate activities for using and practicing these strategies.
Metacognition (thinking about one's thinking) is a major part of this process. By recognizing the strategy being used, it becomes part of the students' repertoire, available for use in subsequent learning or problem-solving situations.
Learners become aware of a range of strategies that they can use: They identify and name each strategy, and build models to act as reminders and references as they use the strategies to deal with increasingly complex material. Through constant practice, constructive strategies become part of the students' habitual behaviour, until finally they use the strategies automatically. Similarly, by becoming aware of unproductive strategies (impulsivity, failure to take into account all available data, etc.), the student learns to avoid them.
The experience of success provides the most potent motivation for engaging in continued learning experiences. Intellectual mastery is rewarding, and provides intrinsic motivation.
If students feel that they can approach material by themselves with confidence and control, and understand what they are doing, they will be motivated to try increasingly more complex material. For this reason, models are important. Learners are encouraged to refer to models rather than asking for help. As students use the models over and over, they become internalized, until eventually they are no longer needed.
This brings us to most important element of all: transfer. No effective learning has taken place unless learners are able to cognitively transfer strategies that they have learned in one context to other similar contexts (Perkins and Salomon).
There has been considerable discussion in the literature about if and how transfer takes place. Some learners may intuitively use what they have learned in new contexts, but most learners do not. It is therefore part of the function of the mediator-usually the teacher--to show students how to implement this transfer.
The following activity will illustrate methodology through materials that incorporate the above principles. It is not meant to be adopted wholesale for classroom use, but rather, to be used as an illustration and a model. Since everyone reading this article is, by definition, a competent reader of English, the example will be in a foreign language, simulating the task which we require of our students, and allowing you to experience the inductive process for yourself.
Building a problem-solving model.
Directions: Can you understand the following text?
Please translate it into English (no dictionary).
UNA SINOPSIS GEOGRAFIA DEL MEDIO ORIENTE.
Este es un mapa del Medio Oriente. Israel es un pais pequeno en el Medio Oriente. Esta ubicado en el continente de Asia. Cuales son los paises alrededor de Israel? Libano esta al norte de Israel, Siria y Jordania estan al este de Israel y Egipto esta al sur de Israel. Al oeste de Israel esta el Mar Mediterraneo. Agua es un recurso escaso en estos paises.
UN MAPA DEL MEDIO ORIENTE
You have just been presented with a text in a foreign language. Nevertheless, you probably managed to decode most, if not all of it. In the same way as you decoded the text, your students can be taught strategies that will help them to decode texts in English.
D. A Model for Solving Problems: 7 steps
Analysis: What strategies did you use to solve this problem?
You probably did some or all of the following:
These are the 7 steps you want to make your students aware of. They are basic to
problem-solving, and basic to reading texts in a foreign language. Although fluent
readers use them unconsciously, they can be taught consciously.
- Systematic search - you looked at all the data. A key question to ask is, What do you see on the page? A systematic examination of data includes examining and describing all the data available (e.g., map, title, punctuation, capital letters, familiar words). Other data could include sub-titles, pictures, captions, different fonts, dates, numbers, name of author, repetition of words, source of article, etc.) Students should become accustomed, not only to recognize such elements, but also to regard them as clues to meaning.
- Naming the data - using correct terminology (e.g., capital letters, title, etc.) The data collecting process will be done initially by the class as a whole, each student contributing to and reinforcing the others' knowledge, with the teacher providing relevant terminology where necessary. Correct terminology is important in building models and enabling discourse.
- Finding the problem: The problem is usually, What does one need to do with the material? In this case the problem is to decode and understand the text and possibly fill in details on the map.
- Finding a starting point. A starting point is always what one already knows. In this case, you probably focused on the map, names of countries, and other cognates. The starting point for the student is always a familiar item, no matter how minimal. Students should be encouraged to look at what they do know, not what they don't. Starting points could be capital letters which indicate names, question marks, brackets which indicate additions not essential to an immediate reading of a sentence, connectors, headings and sub-headings, etc.
- Looking for clues. Your previous knowledge provided clues. Looking for clues could include defining the problem (e.g., blanks to be filled in, pictures which invite the reader to connect them to the text or title, different text structures, etc.) or general knowledge of the subject matter. Students will be taught to regard such elements as clues.
- Making connections. This is the essential element in constructing meaning. Familiar elements are used as clues and connected, e.g., the connection between the map and familiar words, between familiar words, the question mark and the first word of the sentence, title and text, etc.)
- Referring to a model. Your model in this case was the map, and your mental model of text structure. A model retains what is essential and discards specific details. Models may be a sequence of steps (e.g., what did we do to solve the problem?), an outline of grammatical principles, a mnemonic to serve as a reminder, part of a table already filled in, a sentence which is given as an example, etc. Students should constantly look for and refer to models as they work, and teachers mediate by using the models.
This can done by analyzing with the students the strategies they used to solve the problem, as we did above, and building these steps into a model (see below) which will act as a reminder for use in subsequent activities.
To use strategies consciously, students should become accustomed to planning their work rather than approaching tasks impulsively. The 7 steps model, and the concept of planning, are basic to all good thinking. (This model was adapted from the research of Reuven Feurstein et. al. and their typology of thinking strategies)
Teachers should allow time for these principles to become absorbed and integrated into their students' cognitive schemas by providing increasingly complex materials with which to use the same models. This is not a waste of time. You are building the foundations of good thinking, which will stand your students in good stead later.
MODEL: 7 STEPS TO SOLVING PROBLEMS.
Look at all the data
Name the data
Find the problem
Find a starting point
Look for clues
Use a model
How does the above methodology illustrate the '10 commandments' mentioned above?
E. Activity for students
- Students are presented with a problem-solving activity (in this case, the Spanish text;
in the students' case, a text in English) which is within their ZPD.
There are enough cognates and familiar general knowledge elements to provide clues
and a starting point. (If you had been asked to translate an extract from Don
Quixote you might not have succeeded).
- Students are actively engaged in a group activity, each building on the insights of the others and thus making use of the social dynamics of the peer group and the teacher,
who act as mediators.
- By analyzing the strategies they use to solve the problem, students gain metacognition into their own and others' thinking processes.
- As a result of their own activity, the students are then in a position to build a model, which will then be used as part of a spiral curriculum, using the model in increasingly complex activities and transferring the strategies to other materials, thus reinforcing them and gradually allowing them to become part of their cognitive schemas.
For EFL activities which rely on the learning principles mentioned in this article, see "I think...therefore I read", Garb, E., & Kozulin, A. (1998), available from the Academon Bookshop, Hebrew University of Mount Scopus.
If you would like to try this activity with your students, here is the text in English. I would be very interested to get feedback on this process: You can use the same map that we used for the activity in Spanish (section C. above)
However, it is important to remember that 'one swallow doth not a summer make'. The model should be used in a variety of increasingly complex activities if it is to be integrated into your students' cognitive schemas.
A SHORT GEOGRAPHY OF THE MIDDLE EAST
This is a map of the Middle East. Israel is a small country in the Middle East. It is on the continent of Asia. What are the countries around Israel? Lebanon is north of Israel, Syria and Jordan are east of Israel, and Egypt is south of Israel. The Mediterranean Sea is to the west of Israel. Water is scarce in these countries.
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