The world of education centers on using new research and experience to identify what students need to learn and how teachers can present that information better. While this system has been trusted to help students reach their academic goals in the classroom, what are students and parents supposed to do if they feel that more can be done to enable students to reach their goals?
Many parents have come to Oxford Tutoring with that very question, and there are times when instruction with our trained and knowledgeable tutors is warranted, if not necessary, especially since the Common Core has changed the way students’ skills are evaluated. However, when it comes to improvement in English Language Arts, there are a number of activities that are effective, free, and fun which students and parents can work on at home.
The most common request our English Language Arts instructors encounter from students is help with comprehending and analyzing plots and arguments. The interesting thing about most of these requests is that the real problem is that they are simply unfamiliar with explaining what they know.
Prior to the last couple years, students were only asked to summarize, or repeat back, what they read, but the new requirements ask them to explain themselves. So, the problem isn’t that they don’t know how to comprehend or analyze, it’s that they aren’t being taught to explain their findings.
Given this revelation, let’s give students some credit for the skills they do have and help them learn to explain their ideas effectively.
The Usual Fix
Most of the time, when a student comes to us because his or her reading and writing scores are less than impressive, we begin by asking the student to read a passage and answer specific questions about what was read. Then, to the tutor’s surprise, the student answers most, if not all, of the questions correctly.
This is surprising to us because the student asked for help with something they already know how to do. So, the tutor ponders the situation for a moment and realizes that the student actually needs help explaining how he or she got those answers.
Thus begins the process of guiding the student through each step of his or her internal analysis process and making it an external process with spoken and written words. The trick is helping the student realize that once they’re finished analyzing the passage, the hard part is over.
An Alternative Fix
I must admit, I love teaching students to comprehend and analyze texts. But I also think that students can try to develop their own strategies and processes without my help. Such an endeavor could even be entertaining and might even begin a lifelong fondness for thinking critically.
The entertaining aspect comes from the fact that students are not limited in their choices of practice materials. One might think that we have to use the same texts provided in English and Social Studies classrooms, but that is just not the case. A more effective option is to use a medium that truly engages the student, and this is easily accommodated when dealing with only one student.
Therefore, the first step in the process of developing comprehension and analysis skills is getting the student to identify the material that will be most engaging. For example, because novels can take so long to get interesting, I like to begin by discussing the student’s favorite movie. Yes, I know our goal is to improve our skills with texts, but, in the beginning, the most important task is getting started – just finding an idea the student finds worthy of putting forth effort to figure out. Even if the student isn’t a movie/television aficionado, the initial and most engaging themes and plots are guaranteed to already be present in the student’s everyday life.
The Actual Practice
So, you’ve decided to conduct some at-home practice, and you know what topic(s) your child is truly interested in. Now, let’s talk about some activities that can help him or her learn to comprehend and analyze the content and then present his or her findings in an effective way. If I write out the process in a list, you might get intimidated and shy away from this whole process, so I’ll start by explaining the core activities and then we’ll get into the process.
Step 1: Oral Exercises
The most entertaining activities are the oral activities in which you’ll just talk to the student about one of his or her interests. That is, you’ll strike up a conversation with him or her about the thing that he or she really wants to talk to you about. Let’s face it; we are talking about young people here. If you give them an excuse, they’ll talk all day and night, and you are going to give them the perfect excuse.
For example, if your student is an avid Netflix user, strike up a conversation about what he or she is currently binge-watching. The goal of this simple sounding activity is to get the student to think critically about what they’ve experienced and decide what is important enough to be included in the explanation and what is not. Then they will have to analyze the content in order to explain how each of those “important” scenes/episodes fits together into the overall plot of the story.
I know; just reading all of this makes it feel like a college level activity, but the student will want to do it and will enjoy it immensely. And you the “instructor” will have to do very little to make it work; just show interest in what the student finds interesting. The only challenging aspect of this first activity is keeping the student on track – focused on the same topic throughout the entire conversation.
Step 2: The Socratic Method
The next activity in the process is applying the infamous Socratic Method. You may be familiar with this form of questioning from your own educational experiences or from modern media’s distortion of it through the angry college professor’s lecture.
However, at heart, the Socratic Method and our main goal in this second type of activity is based on trying to truly understand what the student likes about the topic he or she has chosen to discuss. What makes him or her so passionate about it? Why is it worth talking about? The difference between this activity and the previous is that you are more of a participant now. In the first activity your goal was simply to keep them talking about the same thing. Now, you want to understand that thing, game, sport, skateboarding trick, movie, whatever. It’s kind of like the game children like to play with adults, where they ask you a question and then keep asking “why?” It’s hilarious and frustrating when the kids do it because there’s no point except to keep you talking.
For us though, there is a point – deep and true understanding, not only of the thing itself, but of the student’s relationship with and to it. You will probe for more and deeper understanding through a back and forth conversation that tests and then expands your and the student’s conception of the topic. To make this work, you’ll want to channel one part: that annoying kid who asks “why” all the time, one part: wise person who says, “hmm” and “that’s interesting,” and one part devil’s advocate who challenges what is known by pushing the idea to the extreme and taking the idea and standing it on its head. Doesn’t that sound fun? I thought you’d think so.
Once you’ve completed these two oral activities a few times, the student will become accustomed to thinking critically about the things he or she cares about. Then, the student will be ready to start writing about what he or she has been thinking about.
Step 3: Written Exercises
The first stage of getting comfortable with writing about what’s on our minds is based on the tried and true method called Journaling. The great thing about Journaling is that there are no rules, so you can’t mess up. For this to work, the student need only put pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard. Ask him or her to fill a page with text about a single topic. These pages will not be subject to reading or critiquing, just ask the student for a quick glance so you can see that writing took place.
The reason this activity is so informal is that the goal is to get the student to put more than a single thought or sentence into the writing process. His or her teachers are expecting more than a yes or no answer and more than just a sentence or two in response. Asking a student to fill a page with text, even if it’s not the most eloquent text, helps him or her to get comfortable with putting ideas together and building on or expounding on an idea. Just give the student some time and a comfortable place to work and watch the ideas trickle and then flood onto the page.
Once the student is able to fill a page with text, it’s time to move on to actual essay writing practice.
Before you get too excited and feel the need to remind me that I said this would be easy and fun or that you might not be an English teacher, let me assure you that my use of the term essay in this passage is rather loose. I, and you, don’t want your student running for the hills at the very mentioning of these activities. Given that, let’s think of essays as writing down thoughts in an organized fashion. Just as with the prior activities, we are focusing on helping the student think critically and fully about an idea, not on the technical correctness of their expression.
When presenting this activity, remind the student that you are not asking him or her to think up anything new. He or she will have already informed you about the basics in the first oral activity. You both will have thought about the ins and outs and finer points of the idea through the Socratic Method. He or she will have already written about it in the Journaling activity. All you’ll be asking for now is an “organized” presentation of the information. In the Journaling activity the student was asked to fill the page, so there was no organization, just thoughts recorded as quickly as they entered the brain.
Now we want to organize those thoughts into an intelligible sequence. If the idea the student wants to express is about explaining how to drive a car, help him or her put the steps in the proper order. Should he or she write about the finer points of shifting the car into fifth-gear before putting on the seatbelt and starting the ignition? No. That’s the kind of organizational awareness we are going to be looking for. If you knew nothing about the topic, was the information presented in a way that would make it possible for you to understand what the student was trying to explain? That’s it.
Neither you nor the student need worry about effectiveness of the hook or if the imagery was descriptive enough for you to feel like you were there in the car hammering the gas pedal while simultaneously feathering the clutch and yanking the E-brake hard enough to make the car Drift through the S-curves like Vin Diesel in a “Fast and Furious” movie. That’s my job. You just need to help the student present all of the really important parts and put them in order so that you can follow along. The same goes for an essay where the student is trying to present his or her opinion about something.
In these analytical or critical essays, ask yourself if you can identify the student’s position or feelings about the issue and why he or she feels that way. Think of it like watching a story on the news or reading an article; don’t worry about how well it was presented as long as you get the important parts.
Level 4: It’s the same, but different
At this level the student will make the transition from working with an idea that he or she is completely familiar with to an article or novel that is new to him or her. This is the stage where you and your child can work together through each of the first three level’s activities. You will work together to build the student’s comprehension and analysis skills as partners.
In the previous activities, the student was teaching you something only known to him or her. Now, you will work together to build each other’s understanding through a genuine partnership. You will read the text at a similar pace and you will think about and discuss the text with the same level of unfamiliarity and newness. By completing each of the first three level’s activities with a new text, you will be able to operate from the perspective of a peer rather than a know-it-all teacher. There will be no wrong answers, no errors, just two people’s unique perspectives on a singular topic.
Keeping It Real and Really Fun
The first thing the more pragmatic of you might think about is, “How long is this going to take?” While it is a good question, the answer depends on how motivated you and the student are. Ideally, you could complete one activity every other day, but I know that life and complicated schedules can get in the way. So, in the end, this can be as formal and regulated as you desire.
You can work with a set schedule so that you and the student can be fully aware and accountable for completing the activities, or you can play it a bit looser and focus on the oral and journaling activities that can be done during car rides and lazy weekends. You know your student best, so you will likely know how best to motivate him or her to start this process as well as what it will take to get you both to stick with it and keep practicing.
My most fervent hope and strenuous recommendation is to keep it fun at all costs. Save the “work” aspects for the classroom teachers and us here at Oxford.
Meet the Author: Alex Claude is an SAT and ACT ELA Director and an ELA tutor at Oxford Tutoring. He takes the time to get to know his students so he can learn and apply how to best teach them. Alex teaches his students how to effectively communicate through writing, and how to analyze informational texts and novels.