I recently attended the 2nd Annual Conference for The Teaching Studio at The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Doing double duty as keynote speaker and presenter, author and blogger Vicki Vinton conducted two workshops on text complexity and how students read complex texts.
As an opening exercise, she asked those in attendance in the afternoon session to sum up their attitudes or feelings at that moment using only one word. She explained that while she is in the process of writing a book on the topic of text complexity, she sometimes feels overwhelmed in trying to meet deadlines and keep up with work responsibilities. She said she had chosen a word to sum up her feelings.
On a slide was her word: “Breathe.”
Some of the participants’ words?
My word? I combined the words try and action; my word was traction.
This opening activity mimicked how readers approach a complex text. In asking each member of her audience to select a word, Vicki explained that she was using the exercise as an ice breaker. She had established a purpose. Her request to have each person choose only one word to sum up an attitude required that each participant had to tap into his or her background knowledge (schema). As Vicki wrote each single word on the chart paper, the words formed a contextual coherence. Individually, these words were in the abstract, but listed collectively on the page, they provided an emotional portrait of the attendees in the session.
When readers read complex texts, they must perform many of the same steps we performed. Readers must establish a purpose for reading. Readers must tap into their own background knowledge, just as we did when Vicki requested that we select a single word. Our choices illustrated how readers must rely heavily on knowledge of word meanings when reading complex texts. Finally, a reader needs to recognize a coherence; how words in a text connect to each other. The attendees in Vicki’s session had a chance to recognize the connection of their words to the education profession.
Had we been given the time, we might have explained in more detail why we had chosen our particular words. I would have had the opportunity to explain why I had selected the traction. The dictionary defines traction as:
1: the act of drawing : the state of being drawn
2: the adhesive friction of a body on a surface on which it moves (as of a wheel on a rail)
3: a pulling force applied to a skeletal structure (as a broken bone) by using a special device <a traction splint>; also: a state of tension created by such a pulling force
Of the three possible meanings, my reason for choosing traction is most closely associated with the second definition. One of my educational objectives this year is to help students in my district to make gains in reading and writing. While that means I may encounter some “friction” in meeting this goal, I must be careful about the degree of “tension” that I create as I work to be a “pulling force” in improving literacy.
The complex thinking that began Vicki’s presentation came from her request to choose only one word proving that text complexity has nothing to do with length; text complexity can be found in brevity.
Vicki’s opening exercise was an excellent way to highlight the stages all readers can experience in reading complex texts. Her presentation developed many of these ideas that she promised would be outlined in the book she is currently writing. While the working title Embracing Complexity is, according to her, “subject to change,” the book will offer problem-based approach to the teaching of reading.
I look forward to reading her book when it is published.
In the meantime, I have a new word: anticipation.