Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series on literacy. The first post covers pre-reading activities for building solid literacy foundations.
Middle school requires high performance when it comes to students comprehending what they should learn and questions they can answer about new material. Students need to extrapolate meaning from text to make predictions and identify critical features of a problem—who’s involved, how it’s solved, is it dangerous or not—or an interaction.
Many of the middle school students on our caseloads, however, still lack the foundational question-answering abilities typically learned in elementary school. Also, core comprehension skills are primarily taught through fictional stories, while much middle school content focuses on nonfiction.
How do we bridge this gap and intervene with appropriate grade-level materials?
To answer this question, I teamed up with Maria Mitidieri, another bilingual speech-language pathologist working at the middle school level.
Storybooks have long been used as educational tools. They provide a structure for teaching concepts, while keeping the student engaged and interested. Story structure additionally assists in retention and retrieval of classroom concepts because of the familiarity with stories, repetition and formulaic patterns. SLPs maximize the benefits of literacy-based intervention using non-fiction with the following modifications.
Step 1: Use non-fiction, but continue to paint a vivid story
Try letting your students bring their homework to group. They can bring math word problems or almost anything involving language arts. Students often find nonfiction dull and difficult to read. Read the homework text and then recast the story with vivid imagery.
“I don’t know what you see, but in my brain, I see an older man sitting on a dock, sweating and trying to haul in the biggest fish with the news camera right behind him on the grass.”
The movie you help create in their minds gives them a backdrop to refer to when answering questions. And do you know how popular you will be with your students and their teachers if homework improves?
Step 2: Obtain better wrong answers
The receptive language concern we hear most often from teachers includes something like: “My student can’t answer questions.” If we rely on this right-versus-wrong model, we ignore data providing our students a bridge to correct responses. We need to gather data on whether their “wrong” answer falls at least in the right ballpark. For example, if you ask a student a where question, their answer should be a place. If you ask a student a who question, their answer should be a person or character.
My first group each Tuesday is two boys. I asked, “What month is it?” One said his birthday month and the other said “blue.” Obviously, there are better wrong answers. We need to get students in the right answer group before we get right answers.
Step 3: Teach answers to questions in groups
Answers to questions can be categorized, just like vocabulary. Build an entire wall or book of possible answers to the four main questions—who, what, when and where. You can provide random answers that a student matches to the group without even asking the question!
When questions are particularly difficult because they come in specific sets, such as days of the week, seasons or months, and are difficult to visualize. What does Tuesday look like? These questions also rely on verb tense for clues to the answer: When will he, when did he, when is he going to…?
Step 4: Visuals still help even with adolescents
What’s the biggest difference between fiction and nonfiction literature? No pictures. When children initially gain their comprehension abilities, they take in visual, auditory and often tactile cues. In middle school, we abandon this for plain text and maybe one grainy black-and-white image. Reintroduce visual stimuli from the groups of answers you created in step three.
We use these types of visuals with our middle schoolers:
Create your own or these can be found in “Literacy-based Speech Language Therapy Intervention Activities.”
Scott Prath, MA, CCC-SLP, is vice president of Bilinguistics in Austin, Texas, and serves a diverse caseload in school and early-childhood settings. He is also the author of “Literacy-Based Speech Language Therapy Intervention Activities,” and writes for The Speech Therapy Blog. He is vice president of public relations for ASHA’s Hispanic Caucus. firstname.lastname@example.org