S2 E7 - What goes into a great text based unit?

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Hi there. It's terrific to welcome you back to the Structured Literacy Podcast. I know that you have many choices when it comes to podcast listening, and I don't take the time you spend with me for granted. I want to say a big thank you to those people who've reached out to let me know that they find the podcast helpful. It's exactly what I hoped for when I started it. I also want to remind you that you can find the complete transcript of each episode as well as any freebie downloads and a bunch of information, at jocelynseamereducation.com

Last week, I spent a week in Perth working with a fabulous school and also delivering my new workshop, Building the Foundations for Your Upper Primary Literacy Block. I plan to deliver this workshop all around Australia throughout the rest of 2023 and 2024. So keep your eyes peeled for dates in your state or city.

Today's topic - Secrets for writing and teaching text-based units
In the last episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast, I discussed creating a connected literacy block, where reading and writing outcomes are addressed at the same time, and rich text is used to provide context for this learning. In this episode, I'd like to share some of my secrets for writing and teaching text-based units that will have all of your students actively engaged in learning age-appropriate content.

Some common practices to rethink
To understand why we recommend so much time to be spent on a text-based unit across all grades, we need to first address some of the common practices that it's probably time to rethink. The first of these is guided reading. Guided reading has been a stalwart of many classrooms and has traditionally involved working with students in small groups using a levelled text from a guided reading scheme or program. During these small group lessons, students were led through decoding the text, usually using multi-queuing methods such as looking at the first letter and pictures to sound out words or lift words from the page, as well as being taught comprehension strategies or skills. While the teacher worked in a small group, the other students worked at stations designed to reinforce or consolidate learning, such as handwriting, phonics, and sight words, and in older grades, comprehension-focused tasks. There are several problems with this approach, aside from the fact that multi-queuing is not grounded in research evidence.

Problem 1 - Undirected Attention
Firstly, we know that students do best with adult-led learning. Without an adult to direct attention, we have no way of knowing who is thinking about what, and we have all seen what happens when we leave students to their own devices, particularly in the early years. Disruption, noise, and, frankly, chaos can detract from even the best small-group lesson that's being run. The capacity to fully concentrate on your own doesn't develop properly until the late teen years. You'll find information about that in Stanislas Dehaene's book, 'How We Learn'. So asking students to be self-directed in learning doesn't really work that well, apart from that small number of students who find learning super easy. However, even for those students, self-managed learning is never going to be as effective as adult-led lessons.

Problem 2 - Not Supported byResearch
The second reason that guided reading practices were not that effective was that they taught comprehension in a way that does not reflect evidence. We would focus on teaching students to infer, to find the main idea, or make connections as if these were skills that could be transferred from one text to another. We would also teach these strategies or skills every single year for large amounts of time. Teaching in this way simply does not reflect how comprehension works. In order for students to be able to infer, they need to have a well-developed vocabulary and have domain-specific knowledge that's required to understand what's happening in the text they're reading.

All the strategy work in the world, without building vocabulary and background knowledge, won't help students develop comprehension. If we don't know what words mean, we can't understand the text that they are included in. The other part of that is the amount of time that we've devoted to the development of these strategies or skills. The research indicates that in short doses, in small amounts, in the early years that they have an effect, but that that effect drops remarkably the older and more experienced the students get. So when we're thinking about strategies, let's think about them not as skills to be taught but as cognitive processes that we help students engage with as we read a rich text. We put them to work; we don't teach them.

Problem 3 - Levelled texts
The final reason that guided reading practices drop the ball is that the whole idea of levelling is flawed. We have been led to believe that if we support students reading development by finding a level, the student is up to and then giving them a book to read that matches the level, we're going to be doing them a service. There is zero evidence for this practice. The only time we need to match a text to a student's point of development is when they're in the early stages, and the text needs to reflect the phoneme-grapheme correspondences that the students have been taught. Students reach a point where things can be less decodable, where they can have things shared with them that don't contain every single thing that they've been taught, and they're just fine. So once children can decode, we need to be moving on.

There is some research suggesting that being supported to read books that are a little bit too hard for you, that stretch you, is what leads to the strongest reading outcomes. That is, once decoding's been established. I do have to say, though, that we need to carefully consider texts students read as they're building knowledge of code and phonemic skills. But once that's done, keeping them confined to texts that don't stretch them doesn't serve them.

Solution 1 - Text-Based Units
This brings me to the point of this episode, a text-based unit. When we write text-based units, we actively seek to address the issues that guided reading presents. We teach them whole class so that there is zero loss of instructional time. We build background knowledge, actively teach vocabulary, and ensure that the chosen texts are rich in vocabulary,  concepts and language features.

We love choosing archaic or older texts for upper primary, and when we write our own stories, as with the case of The Three Little Pigs, we purposely include rich language such as, "The three little pigs lived splendid lives until the day the wolf came knocking". The average children's book contains more complex language than an adult television show (Montag et al, 2015) And for this reason, children's books are an excellent stimulus for language and literacy learning. But be careful; not all books are created equal.

Many of us work under the impression that comprehension can't develop unless the students are lifting the words from the page themselves. In the early years, this has tied student's comprehension work to simple, levelled texts that don't stretch them at all. In contrast, text-based units are rich and see the teacher as the decoder while the students do the thinking. We read the texts aloud so that students can grow knowledge and skills. In years three-six, I think that picture books have a place, but it's a much more effective approach to have each student with a copy of a text in front of them where they share in lifting words from the page. This could take the form of a short story, a poem or a novel, but each student has access to the text. The reading can take the form of a combination of teacher read, partner read, and individually read sections. Adjustment can be provided to ensure that students with reading difficulty can engage with the age-appropriate text too.

Change thinking about planning
When it comes to planning and learning opportunities, I think a little differently about this than we did in the past. The first way I encourage you to think differently is to recognise that the term 'mentor text' has some limitations. Saying that we use mentor text implies that the student's writing at the end of the unit will reflect the genre of the thing that you are teaching. That means that if we're reading a fiction text, the writing has to be fiction, and on the flip side if we want students to write nonfiction, the main text has to be nonfiction. This is simply not the case. This mindset has also led to an overemphasis on fiction writing in upper primary years. Now, this is purely my opinion, so you take it as you like, but I think that we do our students a disservice when we don't give them enough time learning to write nonfiction texts in years three to six. After all, writing about thinking and learning is the thing that's going to set them up for success in secondary and tertiary education. It's also the writing that will help them get and keep a job as adults. If you take nothing else away from this episode other than that, then I'm happy. My key message here is that the genre of the writing in a unit does not have to match the genre of the writing in the stimulus text. For example, our text-based unit in the Resource Room on The Velveteen Rabbit has a focus on characters and character development. The recommended summative tasks ask students to write about the development of the Velveteen Rabbit throughout the text. We read a fiction text. and produce a non-fiction piece of writing. But we don't just throw the summative task at the students.

How we can gently lead students to build their skills
This brings us to my next key point about writing robust units. We need to gently lead students to build their skills and knowledge gradually, giving them loads of practice of what they need to know and do in order to be successful in the final task. Traditionally, the writing process has been an I do, we do, you do, Perhaps across three or four lessons with not a lot of time to develop skills and understanding.

In our approach, the 'We Do' bit lasts for at least a couple of weeks and actively supports students to apply their learning in increasingly more complex writing situations. For example, we might explicitly teach students about adjectives. We then have them identify adjectives in the stimulus text and practice writing them at sentence level. Then we take this and build on it by increasing the amount of writing that's expected, until finally, after many opportunities for practice, and once we've ensured that they have a solid understanding of the text we've been reading, we ask them to produce a piece of writing that constitutes a full text of their own. This process might sound really familiar, and I certainly didn't develop the explicit teaching model, but there is great value in extending this process across four or five weeks because it's time and practice that leads to proficient comprehension and writing and a great text based unit takes care of both.

The other way that our text-based units are different from others is that we have a limited number of goals for each unit. While students will have a range of experiences throughout the unit, there are three main goals that we focus on and explicitly assess. One text level goal, one sentence level goal, and one word level goal. If you're thinking that this sounds super simple, you're right. The impact of this targeted approach to goal setting is that students have oodles of practice with each goal and are, therefore, in a really strong position to write with detail and depth at the end of the unit.

It's perfectly understandable that you might like this idea while being worried about it at the same time. After all, most of us spend our time worried we aren't doing enough. However, I want to encourage you to adopt this paired-back approach to planning. What this does is enable you to go an inch wide and a mile deep in your planning instead of an inch deep and a mile wide. When we fill our units with way too many goals, it's like we're dragging the kids behind a horse by a rope. They might physically reach the destination at the same time as us, but they aren't keeping up. We know that repetition, rehearsal and retrieval are the keys to long-term learning. With learning being a permanent change in long-term memory. Having really busy units simply doesn't leave us with sufficient time for that to happen. We're then in the position of getting to the end of the unit and students simply not being able to remember what we've taught or complete a larger task, leaving us in the position of having to feed the task to the students so much that it's really no longer their work and we can't call it independent.

In conclusion...
Text-based units are a great way to help students develop skills and knowledge at the top of the rope. That is, to develop the language and literature components of literacy. Keeping things simple, applying the explicit teaching model across the whole unit as well as within individual lessons and providing loads of practice that sets students up for success means that you'll be able to help your students understand texts and write with confidence. 

If you're interested in accessing our text-based units that are ready to go, all there for you, freeing up your preparation time and feeling like a pro, join us in the Resource Room community by visiting www.jocelynseemaeducation.com/the-resource-room   If you're interested in learning more about how to write your own units, we have a course called Writing Success inside the Evergreen Teacher Membership, which you can also find out about on our website. 

Thank you so much for joining me in this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. I'll see you next time bye.

References and Further Reading: 

Dehaene, S. (2021) How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain. Penguin

Draper, D. (2022) '5 Ways to Improve Comprehension Instruction' https://thinkforwardeducators.org/blog/5-ways-to-improve-comprehension-instruction 

Montag JL, Jones MN, Smith LB. The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the Statistics for Language Learning. Psychol Sci. 2015 Sep;26(9):1489-96. doi: 10.1177/0956797615594361. Epub 2015 Aug 4. PMID: 26243292; PMCID: PMC4567506. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4567506/ 

Shanahan (2017) The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text.  https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/the-instructional-level-concept-revisited-teaching-with-complex-text 

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