How to Improve Reading with the 80/20 Analysis

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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

  1. 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…
  2. 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%.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Overcoming Pushback

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.

Connect with Hacking Literacy author Gerard Dawson on Twitter @gerarddawson3 and on his blog

Hacking Literacy Hack Learning chat

Hacking Literacy and Creating a Culture of Readers: #HackLearning Chat

Hacking Literacy author Gerard Dawson moderates this live #HackLearning Twitter chat about changing reading instruction.

With nearly 600 tweets to this fast-paced 30-minute chat, educators show their enthusiasm for hacking literacy and building a culture of readers at their schools and in their classrooms.

Please continue the chat in our comment section below and through all of the Hack Learning social channels.

Review the entire chat archive

Click anywhere on this interactive chat and scroll to read all tweets. Remember, sharing is caring!

Don’t miss the live #HackLearning Twitter chat, every Sunday at 8:30 AM ET. 

Of course, we share amazing resources daily on Twitter, so bookmark #HackLearning and lob us a tweet daily.

Can’t make it to the live chat? Check out our chat archive here.

Learn more about Gerard Dawson and the entire Hack Learning team here.

hacking reluctant readers #HackLearning Twitter chat

Hacking Reluctant Readers and Building a Reading Culture: #HackLearning Chat

Education Hacker extraordinaire Gerard Dawson moderates this ingenious chat, helping us hack reluctant readers and build a culture of readers.

Don’t miss Gerard’s new book, Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom Into a Culture of Readers. Follow Gerard on Twitter @GerardDawson3 and check out his video hacks on the Hack Learning Facebook page.

Check out the entire Hacking Reluctant Readers Chat

Join our chat

Don’t miss the live #HackLearning Twitter chat, every Sunday at 8:30 AM ET. 

Of course, we share amazing resources daily on Twitter, so bookmark #HackLearning and throw us a tweet daily.

Can’t make it to the live chat? Check out our chat archive here.

How to Promote Summer Reading: #HackLearning Chat

Arkansas elementary school principal Bethany Hill loves books and is inspired to put them in students’ hands.

Bethany helps us hack summer reading, in this live #HackLearning chat. Check out all tweets and resources in the archive below.


Follow Beth Hill on Twitter @BethHill2829 and read her blog, Learning and Leading: A Lifelong Journey

Don’t miss the live #HackLearning Twitter chat, every Sunday at 8:30 AM ET. 

Can’t make it to the live chat? Check out our chat archive here.

Hack Learning

Hacking Literacy With Book Nooks

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With more than 120 million illiterate children, it’s time to put books in kids’ hands.

In this episode of the Hack Learning Podcast, Mark Barnes shares how one school built a Book Nook and filled it with thousands of books, which the school gave to its students.

Unlike the school library, the Book Nook is a place where students can simply take books and keep them.

In one of the easiest, yet most powerful, education hacks ever created, you learn simple steps for launching your own Book Nook as early as tomorrow. Then, you can build an amazing culture of readers at your school. This is Hacking Literacy.

Please share your own Literacy Hacks in our comment section and on the #HackLearning and #HackingLiteracy Twitter feeds.

Learn more about the Book Nook and the rest of our 10 Quick Fixes for Every School here, and don’t miss Hacking Literacy, available now.