Case Studies in English Language Arts: Part 2

In the first blog of this series, I argued that when teachers use multiple-choice items as the predominate way of measuring student learning, it is difficult (to near impossible) to uncover what students are thinking. Many students enter and exit their grade in roughly the same relative stage of proficiency in the state standards. This is one reason that many accountability systems now privilege growth (gains made along a test scale) in addition to status (proficiency).

If we want to accelerate student learning, we need to provide students the opportunities they need to learn in order to grow. To do so, we must uncover the types of evidence these students use to draw conclusions. This helps us identify where students are in their development. We must then support them in practicing the thinking skills present in next stage of development. We must think in learning progressions, use learning science, and provide the opportunities each student needs to master the desired learning target. In this blog I argue that we need to engage students more frequently in writing to support their growth. I share textual evidence characteristics that are signals of where students are in their learning. By looking for these signals, you can determine what thinking skills and abilities students likely need to master next to become proficient in textual analysis.

Deeper learning prepares students to work collaboratively and master challenging academic content. https://images.all4ed.org/license/

Performance tasks help students grow

Performance tasks can be product or process based. They help students integrate knowledge, skills, and abilities across standards. In the classroom, they are often tools to ensure students are engaging in more complex levels of thinking and learning. When they are used consistently and increase in complexity, they give students multiple opportunities to learn and show you if they are growing in their thinking skills across time. Studies with university students have shown that short-answer tests produced greater gains in students learning course material than multiple-choice tests. In an important study titled “Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardized Tests: Conflict or Coexistence,” researchers found that Grade 3, 6, and 8 students who had consistent opportunities to engage with more complex tasks—i.e., required writing, connected to the real world to support relevance and engagement, and focused on higher levels of cognitive complexity— performed higher on large-scale assessments than peers who did not have such opportunities. This suggests writing frequently, removing recall (i.e., detail) questions from reading assessments and instructional activities once students demonstrate they can do this skill, and focusing on the location of evidence that students use to answer a question correctly helps you use your time and students’ time wisely.  

Performance task considerations

Context is the condition under which a child can demonstrate a particular skill, such as making an inference. Context is the content-based nuance or scaffolding that affects the difficulty of the task. One research-based finding is that the location and clustering of evidence in the text a student must use to draw a conclusion affects the difficulty of the inference. Thus, when you are creating a performance task to foster student’s abilities to make an inference, you may want to consider borrowing or adapting a stimulus, at least initially. Analyze where the evidence is in the text for each possible inference you want a student to make. Inferences range from simple to complex. What type of inferences can a student make and using which types of evidence?

The good news is that rich texts often allow us to ask different inference questions that target students in different stages of development. Thus, you can create tasks for students that align with their specific needs, often from the same passage.

Here is an example of a text analysis progression for Grade 6 students synthesized from research. By looking at a passage, a question/task, and the evidence the student must use to answer the question correctly, you can align the task to a student’s current stage of development. That is, you are looking at the text-task interaction. To discover which student needs the text-task interaction (hereafter referred as the task) you have identified, find the student who is in the next earlier stage of the progression.

Student’s Current Stage of DevelopmentEvidence Characteristics
The student working to access on-grade text analysisidentifies explicit textual evidence to answer literal comprehension questions in which the evidence used is in a single sentence or two adjacent sentences.
The student working at the beginning stages of on-grade text analysismakes simple inferences that are a restatement of evidence the text says explicitly and is often found within a paragraph.
The student approaching on-grade text analysismakes simple inferences that are a restatement of evidence the text says explicitly and can often cite a single piece of evidence within a paragraph in support.
The student engaging in early on-grade text analysismakes inferences that are a restatement of evidence the text says and can often cite more than one piece of evidence using adjacent paragraphs in support.

provides interpretations of author’s purpose or character traits and motives that are more obvious.
The student engaging in year end on-grade text analysismakes sophisticated inferences by locating, citing, synthesizing, and interpreting relevant pieces of evidence that are not adjacent in the text to respond to tasks such a development of a theme, changes in character traits, effects of setting on plots, and multiple meanings.
The student engaging in an advanced on-grade text analysismakes complex inferences by locating, synthesizing, and interpreting multiple pieces of relevant evidence that are not adjacent in the text and uses these skills to analyze development of themes and the effects of changes in character traits, setting and setting changes, and multiple meanings have on plot development or conflict.

uses complex inferencing skills to make comparisons or connections across texts of the same or different genre.
Text Analysis Learning Progression
Student writing

Adapting Assignments

Samples of state assessments with released items can be a nice place to borrow passages for a performance task to probe student thinking in your classroom, especially for older elementary and middle school students. You can also do the same adaptions with short stories in the literature textbook you use. The passages will typically align to the state’s text complexity expectations, and the passages will be sufficiently rich to address and target multiple standards at different levels of difficulty.  This released Grade 6 paired passage (found on pages 2–5) is an excellent text source to understand where students are in their thinking. In this context, we are using the passages only.

We want to give students time to complete such a task. In earlier parts of the year, having students engage in an essay developed over a week as homework is a nice option.  Students need to engage in essay writing monthly or more across years to become fluent in the writing and analysis process. Students might be asked to annotate the text first. This provides the teacher an opportunity to discover what each student independently notices quickly. For students who are in earlier stages of reading comprehension, make the task easier. Ask them to annotate the first passage and then write a paragraph regarding what they infer to be the theme along with the corresponding evidence they used to develop that inference. Make the task a bit harder for other students. Ask them to write about how the author develops the theme in the first text. In this way, all students are getting access to on-grade text; however, the task each student is given is targeted to what the student needs to do next to grow. By looking at the evidence they use in their writing, you can tell if students are moving forward.

Another approach is to sequence the tasks. Optimally you provide feedback about what the student needs to do next. If there are two pieces of evidence to support an answer, can the student find one or the other? Once the student has successfully responded to the first task of identifying the theme and written a paragraph with sufficient evidence, the student can then be given the task of tracing the author’s development of the theme along with that corresponding body of evidence. The student should be encouraged to revise as needed to meet your expectations.

The more complex version of such a task sequence is below. In this situation, the teacher purposefully chose to ask the students to focus on annotating elements of narrative text because the measurement goal was to elicit inferencing and analysis skills rather than lower-level skills such as restating explicit information. The teacher wanted to check what the students annotated before they began writing. If a student was not able to pick up key elements of narrative text the author used to set up the conflict and resolution in each text, the student would not be able to engage in the writing task sufficiently to make it meaningful. Thus, the teacher is evaluating if the student analysis skills are sufficient before increasing the cognitive load in which the student is asked to share evidence, inference, and analysis while organizing thoughts in writing.

Here is the task that was given to students.

The writers of “The Cave” and “The Climb” have shared themes in their texts.

Step 1: Perform a close read of each passage. As you identify an element of narrative text that we have studied, highlight the element. Each element you find should be highlighted in a different color and labeled along with your inference. Share your annotations with me before moving to the next step.

Step 2: Write an essay analyzing how the authors each develop their theme. Compare similarities or differences in how the theme is developed. Use evidence from the texts and your learning progression to develop your essay.

Here is a sample student response from this assignment. Compare what the student wrote to the original multiple-choice questions (pp. 6-11). Do you think this student would have answered most of the multiple-choice questions correctly?  Why? Where does the student fall along the text analysis learning progression? What additional information does the teacher have now to guide instruction that he would not have had using just multiple-choice questions? Notice, at no point have we discussed grading the students. This is an opportunity to learn. Students who are challenged at the right level of complexity so they can see their own development are more likely to engage in and focus on their own learning. The goal is to help each child find success, and we are focused on the formative process.

Based on this student’s response, you might ask the student and her peers in a similar stage to develop an essay in which they compare how each author develops the parent perspective found in “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes and “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor using evidence from both texts. Such a task integrates the three standards below (in addition to writing standards) and increases in complexity. Perhaps, the group of students compare their perspectives and writing. Can the students, as a group, find the key pieces of evidence that you, the teacher, would use? Often writing helps students think and make connections they would not otherwise. After comparing their work with one another, they likely have new information to add to their own analysis. This book is selected with the assumption that it is the focus of a novel study around the same time, and the poem is a “cold” read.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.9
Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.6
Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.4
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.

Given that this book and poem are frequently studied in middle school classrooms, how might you take these two texts and adapt tasks to support students in different stages of reading development? Engaging the student with a task from a novel that is studied is a precursor to asking students to perform a parallel task in a novel of their choice as a project.

Who are the students needing to grow?

When you see students increase scores along the district’s interim assessment scale, but their year-end predicted achievement level does not change, their scores decrease, or their achievement stays “flat” we want to pause and reflect. Take the time to identify what evidence students are using to support their thinking of what they read.

Students across all levels of achievement can find themselves stuck and not growing.  Perhaps in your probing you find that students are able to retrieve explicit details from the text, but they are unable to make a low-level or simple inference. For these students they need the next stage of text-task interaction opportunities in which we invite them to make a simple inference that uses evidence found within a single sentence or single paragraph. Perhaps you have students who are able to make simple inferences, and in order for them to grow you need to locate text-task interaction opportunities in which you invite them to make an inference that relies upon drawing evidence across two or more paragraphs that are next to each other, and you ask them to articulate (cite) how they know. Perhaps you have students for whom you need to locate text-task interaction opportunities in which you invite them to make inferences that will rely on drawing upon evidence across paragraphs that are separated, and you ask them to write a paragraph or an essay describing how they know.

Writing takes students more time because it is more cognitively demanding. It also helps students transfer learning to new situations. (For students who need support getting their ideas on paper, using text to speech software as a beginning step can be helpful).  By focusing students on the types of tasks they need for growth, we accomplish more. This allows you and your students to use time effectively. Students in more novice stages of learning are not left perpetually drowning. Students in more advanced stages of learning are not left perpetually with busy work that does not encourage them to analyze and critique.

Need to liven things up? Allow students to choose an essay, presentation, or a podcast when you are ready to formally assess them; but, use the same rubric. Once students can compare and contrast evidence from different sections within a text, they also have the ability to begin to compare, contrast, and evaluate evidence across multiple texts to engage in more sophisticated, difficult tasks. You might still use multiple-choice items in your classroom on rare occasions because they are fast and efficient for you, but it is my deepest hope you move them from multiple choice to the beyond!

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