Close reading and why it matters.

I teach a lot of reading. Reading comprehension accounts for about 50% of most of my lessons, for many reasons. The first is that it’s the area most of my students need to develop in order to pass their exams. More importantly, I think it’s the skill they most need to develop in order to have successful futures.

But there’s a difference between reading and understanding the main point of something, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it, and understanding what that means and why it’s important.

Close reading has been my focus in my lessons for about two weeks now. I started a new job in September and this is week 6 with my new classes. The difference between reading for gist and reading for meaning is a big one to them, and not a skill that comes easily.

But it might be one that helps them the most in the future. I’ll give an easy example: mobile phone contracts. We’ve all been there, tried to switch deals to find out that we can’t until a certain date without a fee, and most of us will admit that we’re in that position because we maybe didn’t give the contract the attention it deserved. But what if we hadn’t developed the skills to read that phone contract? The rental agreement? The new job specification?

Close reading is important, even when teaching lower levels of functional skills qualifications. Because one day these students will need to access things, and my worst fear is them being exploited because they can’t read what they’re signing up to.

Good questions to encourage close reading can be:

• That’s a great point, can you tell me where it says it in the text?

• Why do you think the writer has phrased it like that?

• What do you think this really means?

• How would you interpret it?

The last first time.

I recently started a doctoral degree in Education. I’ve wanted to do a PhD for a long time, and work and other commitments have always got in the way. So I think it’s important for the context of this post that I say I’m thrilled to be starting this new opportunity. I’m excited about the topic I want to research. I’m excited about the challenge.In my first real post for this blog I spoke about reading being like swimming, how in the beginning it looks easy and fun but, after an initial drop in confidence, fear can take over. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how, as teachers, we often forget what it was like to stand on the shore and desperately want to dive in.

The thought came to me because I’m feeling a similar sensation now. I’m so excited to begin my research. I can see myself in 4 years negotiating the surf and gliding through the water. But now, standing at the edge of a pile of reading, my toes are cold. The water splashes my face accidentally when I step in.

I’m a little bit scared.

Which makes me think of my students, and the first time I give them a piece of work at the top band of their level or at a level above that challenges them and scares them. I see myself standing by them and encouraging them to just jump in – that it will be alright and, that if it isn’t, I’ll see them to safety.

But I wonder if I’ve stopped remembering just how scared they are. Which makes me thankful for suddenly feeling a little out of my own depth. It reminds me that writing scaffolds, starting sentences, mind maps, seem like such small devices – so small that it’s hard to remember that a student might be clinging to them.

For some students, these things are life lines. Let’s keep making sure we throw them.

Digital literacy and fake news.

Fake news is a new phrase. Especially since the American Presidential election last year, the idea of news made entirely to suit a political agenda has appeared more and more often on social media and in traditional news outlets. This article by the Independent suggests that children are finding it difficult to discern which stories are fake, and so the number of calls to NSPCC about concerns over world events have risen. But there is a bigger issue than children – young people who we perhaps would not expect to be at an age where they can detect bias – not knowing if a story is “real”. Many older teens and young adults struggling with literacy issues lack this skill too.

News articles – even those that based in real news – always have a slight bias. And while it may be common knowledge which side of the political spectrum well known journals swing to, the huge number of growing online journalism forums is not so easy to define.

Which leaves people with lower levels of literacy vulnerable to groups trying to publish messages that would be frowned upon by mainstream media. Without the ability to detect bias, if everything is taken at face value, some of our young people and low literacy adults are open to exploitation.

So what’s the practical way to address this? How can we do this in lessons and functional skills courses? Bias is a key part of the syllabus at GCSE and at functional skills level 2, but what about learners working at a lower level than that?

I think for me the key is questioning. What is the article saying? Where did it come from? Who wrote it and can you google that person to get a better idea of their intentions in writing the text? What other sorts of articles appear on the same site?

Questioning what we read, even if we don’t automatically recognise the bias, makes us much less likely to get sept up in fake – and sometimes dangerous – news.