What the Research Can Teach Us

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Research. Saying this word to many high school students can make them groan. I hear it myself every year, so I am constantly revamping my research unit.  This year, I noticed that many of my students were struggling to find something to latch onto. Before 9th grade, they learned how search databases and use what they found to create projects, but they never wrote a paper. Because of this, my research unit is an introduction to many new skills. When we first got started, many students had already checked out. They followed the steps I gave them, but if you asked some of them what they would be doing with the research, many would have shrugged. The struggle was real. They were bored with the process not even one week in, so I tried to find something to hook them.

That “hook” ended up tying into the one aspect of my class that many students have latched on to: independent reading. We read in class every day, I share new titles in our classroom library, and I confer with them. I’m proud to say that almost all of my 9th graders are actively reading books of their choice. Well, almost all of them. One particular student, however, has been avoiding reading with as much determination as I put into promoting it. About two weeks ago, I noticed that, yet again, this student was refusing to read a book during our independent reading time. When I asked her why, she informed me that she didn’t need to read. She found it pointless. When I started mentioning some of the benefits, she replied with a snarky, “Says who?” That’s when my research topic was born.

What followed were multiple days of reading, sharing articles, organizing my ideas in outline, searching for more articles, and eventually creating a draft. I got frustrated at times, and my students saw that. They needed to see that, yes, teachers struggle too. I was also determined to change this one student’s mind about my topic, and that gave me a purpose for what I was doing. As I started sharing all the work I did with my students, they saw my determination to prove my point. I encouraged them to make sure they had that same desire, so some students immediately switched topics. They began seeing that becoming an expert on their topic would be a necessity if they wanted to write a strong paper.

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One portion of my graphic organizer that I showed my students while I was in the process of planning out my ideas.

Now, I’m not saying that just reading, planning, and writing along with my students was enough to get all students excited about research, but soon some of them began to see a purpose behind what they were doing. Many students began using my writing as a mentor text, which enabled them to make strides with their own. I also saw that my struggling readers and writers benefited from hearing me think aloud and share my own struggles in this process. Effort improved as well, for I started getting more questions from students about how I found an article that was useful, or what I did to find important information in my article (click here for more specific information about this topic). Most importantly, I found that many students were proud of all they learned about their topics, and they had the desire to share that knowledge with their audience.

Next week, my students will be finishing up their papers, and I must say I am quite proud of how well they are doing. I know I still have more revisions to make to this “unit,” but I have found that my students are much more successful than in years past. Many found that desire to acquire knowledge, they all learned necessary research skills, and yes one particular student even began to recognize why independent reading is so essential in her life.

Below is an excerpt from my “research paper draft” that I shared with my students:

One of the many reasons independent reading is beneficial to all students is because it improves vocabulary levels. Jerry Heverly, an English teacher at San Leandro High School in California, came to a realization that his own consistent independent reading helped him learn new words without even knowing it. Like other English teachers, he was always taught to teach vocabulary traditionally, meaning having students find dictionary definitions and complete word tests. With this traditional instruction, he found that “words ‘learned’ in September would be forgotten by December” (Heverly 98). After doing some research, Heverly came to the conclusion that “if you want a child to learn words, have him or her read” (99). He discovered that learning the meaning of words is a process, and that many children have vocabularies that contain many “partially-known words” (Heverly 99). Most importantly, he found that “readers learn words at more than twelve times the rate of those relying on direct instruction” (Heverly 99). This was all Heverly needed to change his way of teaching vocabulary, but other teachers aren’t as willing. Many educators believe that only they can teach vocabulary, and, therefore, it cannot be learned on its own. Independent reading provides an introduction to new vocabulary, as well as allows students to choose what they want to read so they are engaged. While reading on their own, they use context clues, pictures, and the structure of the text to help them decipher meaning (Heverly 100). Given these facts, it’s obvious that reading for enjoyment can be more beneficial to our students than direction instruction.

Like the direct instruction used to teach vocabulary, many schools require teachers to use reading programs that include scripted techniques to use when teaching reading. Although research proves that students are often engaged in the required activities, there was very little actual reading being done (Allington 57). Gail Ivey, who holds a PhD and Masters in reading education, states that “engagement, and thus more meaningful and productive reading, is most likely when readers feel a sense of autonomy (i.e., to choose what they read; to not be interrogated about their reading or monitored) and experience a sense of relevance in their reading.” In contrast, there is no proof that direct reading instruction can get students to that same level (Ivey). There is proof, however, that with direct interventions and strategies, many of the struggling readers did not show improvement (Allington 57). Why use these scripted programs is there is no proof that they work?

Even with all the research, some reading experts still do not agree that independent reading is effective. They feel that if children are reading silently, it will be difficult for a teacher to determine if they are comprehending what they read. To remedy this, teachers need to hold their students accountable. Tim Pruzinsky, an English teacher who teaches at the International School Bangkok in Thailand, states, “a thoughtful, strategic, and carefully implemented plan of action” (26) needs to be put in place. To start, a teacher must devote class time to independent reading. According to Richard Allington, “few poor readers remain at such slow rates when given the opportunity to practice reading in context daily” (57). In other words, practice is necessary for improvement. During that reading time, teachers should confer with students so they “get to know them as readers” (Pruzinsky 28). Students also need to be “hit with advertisements every day” (Przunisky 27), so book talks and read alouds are a must. They send an obvious message that reading matters. Finally, throughout the school year, students should complete reading-based projects where they assess their own reading growth. Pruzinsky decided to have his students rank their books in order of how difficult they were after reading Teri Lesesne’s book Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Then to Be. By holding students accountable, teachers can easily determine whether or not students are comprehending what they read and showing growth.

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How do you teach research skills in your classroom? Feel free to add your comment below.

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