Follow Laura Robb on Twitter @LRobbTeacher
“But what does an inference look like?” This question, posed by a fifth grade student struggling to get a grip on making inferences represents the confusion many students experience with that strategy. An effective way to support all learners as they work to understand and apply a reading strategy is for you, the teacher, to show them what the process of understanding and applying the strategy looks like. You can easily do that by reading aloud a passage from an anchor text, thinking aloud, and making your process visible as you infer and identify unstated meanings in texts.
Teach Reading With an Anchor Text
An anchor text is short and usually complements the genre and theme of whatever unit of study you’re carrying out. If your students are reading biographies, for example, then the anchor text could be a picture book biography such as Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull or an excerpt from a chapter book such as The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin. You can evaluate the length of an anchor text by deciding whether you can complete the modeling in about ten class periods by reading aloud each day, two to three paragraphs. The strategies you model should first and foremost give students the thinking tools they need to read well and perhaps help them meet state and Common Core State Standards. Think-aloud and show students how to:
- use context clues to figure the meaning of unfamiliar words
- build prior knowledge by previewing a text before reading
- apply reading strategies such as making inferences, finding themes, and determining important ideas
- link figurative language, literary elements, and informational text structures to a theme or big idea in a text.
- discuss the genre characteristics of the anchor text
- foster collaborative discussions of the anchor text
- answer text-dependent questions
- use close reading to solve reading challenges
The strategies that you model with an anchor text should be the same strategies that students practice applying to books at their instructional reading level. Anchor text lessons can offer students multiple opportunities to build and/or enlarge their mental models of how specific strategies work, so they can use those strategies on their own to become better readers.
Anchor Text Lesson on Figurative Language
The purpose of this lesson for middle school students, which is based on the Emily Dickinson poem below, is to help students understand and identify an extended metaphor and then show how the metaphor enhances a theme in the text. [begin box]
She sweeps with many-colored brooms,
And leaves the shreds behind;
Oh, housewife in the evening west,
Come back, and dust the pond!
You dropped a purple ravelling in,
You dropped an amber thread;
And now you’ve littered all the East
With duds of emerald!
And still she plies her spotted brooms,
And still the aprons fly,
Till brooms fade softly into stars—
And then I come away.
1. Make sure students understand that an extended metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that’s woven through several sentences, paragraphs or, as in this case, most of a poem.
2. Read aloud the poem twice. Before the second reading, ask students to listen for the extended metaphor.
3. Think aloud and explain the metaphor. Here’s what I say:
Dickinson compares sunset to a housewife and includes housewife imagery in each stanza. In the first stanza, words like sweep, housewife, and dust conjure pictures of a woman cleaning. However, instead of cleaning house, she’s cleaning away daylight and preparing for sunset.
4. Invite students to turn and talk and identify housewife imagery in the second and third stanzas. Here’s what students say:
Second stanza: ravelled, littered
Third stanza: brooms, aprons
5. Next, pose a question that can help students connect the extended metaphor to the poem’s theme: Why does Dickinson compare sunset to a housewife?
6. Ask students to turn and talk to explore that question. Here’s what two students said when I carried out this lesson recently in an eighth-grade classroom:
- A housewife never finishes her work—like with nature always having to do sunset and sunrise.
- My mom’s got routines—like she does stuff around the house on different days. That’s like sunrise and sunset ‘cause different things happen.
7. Wrap up the lesson by celebrating students thinking and recapping what you’ve taught them about extended metaphor.
Suggestions for Using an Anchor Text to Teach Reading
The more you plan and practice anchor text lessons the easier delivering them becomes. You might consider practicing with colleagues to boost your comfort level. Then, plunge into offering your students explicit anchor text lessons using the guidelines that follow.
Process Guidelines for 10 to 15 Minute Anchor Text Lessons
Model a strategy that students are learning in guided reading. When you align your whole-class teaching with what students are learning in small groups, they stand a better chance of understanding and internalizing the strategy.
- Tell the students the strategy you’ll be modeling for them.
- Explain the strategy, how it helps readers, and how readers apply it
- Read a short passage from the text and model by thinking aloud, how you apply the strategy.
- Involve the students. Have them turn and talk to apply the strategy to a different passage from the text. When they’ve finished, ask volunteers to share their thinking.
- Wrap up the lesson by retelling students what you and they did. Repeat the strategy’s name and how to apply it.
Present the interactive anchor text reading lesson using different parts of the same text four to five times a week. Start by carrying out the lesson with the whole class and repeat it as necessary in small groups of students who require more time to absorb it. Short, focused, interactive anchor text lessons can show your students what terrific readers do as they unpack a text’s meaning.
The Principal’s Corner
To make explicit instruction part of lessons that teachers present, it’s helpful to have them practice in small groups, so that they will start sharing their process with students. During a faculty meeting, organize teachers into groups of four and give each group a short text. You can find short texts on the Internet or you can use some that are on the CD for Unlocking Complex Texts.
Invite the group to read the text and plan a mini-lesson using the think-aloud strategy. Have teachers choose their topic: activate prior knowledge, make logical inferences, find main ideas, connect text features to main ideas, etc. Ask teachers to review the process guidelines in this newsletter to help them frame their lesson. These process guidelines can also help when teachers debrief their presentations with colleagues having the goal of improving explicit instruction.
The first time you do this, invite one teacher from each group to present the explicit lesson. To provide all teachers with practice, ask department chairs to have each teacher present a mini-lesson with a think-aloud during a department meeting. The point is that when teachers have opportunities to practice a strategy with their peers, they raise their comfort level with the strategy and also observe how their colleagues use it.
To encourage teachers to integrate explicit instruction into their lessons, tell them that this will be the focus of a series of walkthroughs.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.
Follow Evan Robb on Twitter: @ERobbPrincipal