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Hacking Literacy author Gerard Dawson explains how to improve reading with the 80/20 Analysis.
The Problem: Required reading is a drag
Many literacy teachers face a conundrum: They are handed a stack of dusty novels or an aging anthology and told to teach the texts by June. The problem? These texts are often inaccessible to students.
Why are required texts often so inaccessible? These texts are often not modern. They may take place in a different historical, geographical or cultural setting than the setting of your classroom. They are often written at a reading level that may far exceed that of your students, and the experiences of the characters may not immediately appear to be relevant to your students’ lives.
Consider the text my current sophomore students are reading: Arthur Miller’s seminal drama, The Crucible. This play was written in the 1950s, but set in the 1690s. The characters speak in an often-confusing syntax. The characters live in an isolated, super-religious community, with few immediate parallels to my students lives. And it is written as a play, which students are less familiar reading than a novel.
With all that working against us, we still can make required texts work for our students.
But, it takes a hack.
The Hack: Use 80/20 analysis
This style of thinking, which I first encountered in Tim Ferris’s best-selling The 4-Hour Work Week, involves examining the way we spend our time to determine the areas of our life that lead to the best results, and those that lead to the biggest headaches.
In this case of teaching required texts, it means to stop thinking of the required text as a massive log that must be cut with a handsaw, and instead a perfect piece of lumber that you can craft into whatever you need it to be.
In other words, abandon the notion of just getting through the book. Cut away all that’s unnecessary in your teaching of required texts. You’ll be left with:
- The parts of the text that are most engaging to students and relevant to your instructional goals
- The lessons, assessments, and other readings that helps students to meet those instructional goals
For many students, reading a required texts means reading at or above the upper end of their ability. Forcing students through 200 pages of a novel that is far above their reading level? That will lead to disengagement, frustration and students taking short cuts to “beat” your assessments.
But by providing good teaching and proper support, we can help students benefit from reading and studying the essential parts of a required text. These short, focused bursts of rigorous reading, when supplemented with relevant nonfiction reading and student-appropriate independent reading, will stretch students’ literacy skills more than the bored-to-death approach that is typical with required reading.
What you can do tomorrow
- Get clear on your objectives by listing the skills, content and essential questions that you want students to experience during your text-based unit. For example, are you teaching The Giver, or are you teaching students to think deeply about the question “What is a perfect society?” The more precise you are with this, the better you can pinpoint the parts of the texts to read as a class. This leads me to…
- Read with a pen and note the essential 20% of the required text that helps you meet your objectives. In a novel, it may be an excerpt where the author demonstrates her style, in a play, it may be a scene where the dialogue reveals important themes. Make the difficult decision to abandon the less important stuff and stick with 20%.
- Visit your favorite news sites to find current relevant current events for your required text. For example, when teaching The Crucible, students read articles about modern day witch hunts (the treatment of Arab-Americans after 9/11, the search for steroid users in baseball, etc.). Combine a essential excerpts of the required texts with a short articles and to build a fiction/nonfiction “text sets.” Use this to engage students in meaningful reading, writing and thinking about important big ideas and essential questions.
- Check YouTube and Audible for video performances and audio versions of the text. I’m not suggesting watching the entire movie version of a book or listening to a whole audio book in place of reading. However, for challenging scenes (or ones that are less important to analyze), students may benefit from a multimedia experience.
- Revive boring assessments allowing students to apply creativity to demonstrate understanding of content and skills. Have students gather costumes and props, then read aloud an excerpt of a play to demonstrate understanding of tone and stage directions. Have students write a bonus scene from a novel to demonstrate understanding of characterization and the author’s style. Again, use 80/20 thinking to throw out assessments that serve the teacher, and keep the stuff that assesses the learning and engages the learner.
- Find thematically related YA books or other texts that are more accessible to your students. Of course we want our students to read challenging, grade-level texts independently. But just as you can’t teach a student pre-algebra by assigning them calculus problems, you can’t help a student read better independently by exhausting them with texts that are far beyond their reading level.
The whole text is required by the curriculum. This may be true, but does that mean students must slog through every chapter? Can the class read, analyze and discuss the essential excerpts together, while students listen to, watch or even read summaries of the less important parts?
Students need the experience of reading a rigorous text. This hack does not suggest abandoning whole class texts altogether (thought in some situations that may be appropriate). Instead, choose the best parts of the text to challenge your students.
When you carefully examine 1-2 pages of a novel, instead of slogging through a close reading of all 200 pages, students will be more focused and willing to push themselves into the deeper reading required by a challenging text.