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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 22

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    Katie Shenk

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

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Question: How do I plan a close read-aloud to support student learning, engagement and pacing?

As described in the Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 21, close read-alouds are 20-25 minute sessions in which primary students engage in reading, writing, and speaking about an engaging, complex text related to the content of the module lessons. To see a close read-aloud in action, you can view these two videos that feature Kindergarteners in Sara Metz’s class.  In the related “Behind the Practice” video, join Sara as she discusses the planning that went into her instruction.

Hungry for more? In this blog post, we delve a bit deeper into close read-aloud planning and pacing through an interview with a dynamic team at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver. Brittini Whetstone, 2nd grade teacher, and Pete Martinez, Senior Team Lead/K-1 Interventionist who supports Brittini and other teachers at the school, give us a glimpse into their planning of a close read-aloud of Stone Girl, Bone Girl, in Grade 2, Module 2, Unit 1.  

Before we get into the specifics of their planning, let’s start with the big picture of their process, which we have framed as the “5 T’s” (you’re likely familiar with EL Education’s “4Ts--Topic, Targets, Text and Task) that anchor our curriculum design process. For today’s blog, we’ll discuss a fifth T—Trust—based on Brittini and Pete’s interview):  

Text: Spend time getting to know the text. How does the structure, content, syntax and vocabulary align with the standards?   

Topic: Read the teaching notes to solidify your understanding. How does this close read-aloud relate to the guiding questions of the unit or module?

Task: Spend time with the culminating task of this close read-aloud. What will students need to know and be able to do at the end of this close read-aloud series?

Targets: Become a student of the standards. What reading, writing, and speaking and listening standards lie at the heart of this experience?

Trust: Embrace a mindset of trust. This is an additional “T” that surfaced during our conversation with Brittini and Pete. They believe that the ELA curriculum is strong and solid and they start from that place as a foundation. In other words, they don’t approach planning with an eye toward what they need to change, but rather, how they can make it the very best for their particular students. They also trust teachers and students to do the hard work required of the curriculum.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key planning moves that Brittini and Pete leverage to ensure a successful close read-aloud experience.

Can you talk us through a co-planning session related to close read-alouds? What processes and strategies do you use to ensure you are prepared to teach?

Brittini: We start by looking at the targets in the entire lesson and then I analyze the corresponding literacy standards related to those targets. This helps me think about the student reading and writing behaviors that anchor the lesson: What should students know and be able to do as readers and writers at the end of this lesson?  In this particular lesson, students focus on using illustrations and text to describe how Mary Anning, the character in Stone Girl, Bone Girl, responds to major challenges. Because many of the standards repeat, I had to spend a bit of time up front getting to know them, but now that I’m familiar with them, this thinking comes fairly easily.  

I begin my analysis of the close read-aloud by highlighting the focus question: “What’s the overall purpose of the close read-aloud?” In this close read-aloud, the focus question is: “How did Mary Anning respond to challenges in her life?” As I read through the guide, I take note of how a particular close read-aloud session leads to the students’ understanding of the focus question. I highlight the activities and text dependent questions. I also highlight what pages I will read aloud and put pencil dots in the text where I’m going to start and end. I also write the text-dependent questions on sticky notes and place them on the corresponding pages of the book.

Brittini carefully annotates her close read-aloud guides as a way to prepare for teaching. 

Pete: Sometimes we test drive the close read-aloud as written. This is especially important with less familiar practices like Language Dives. There was a Language Dive in this lesson, so we tried it out. After the test drive, we discussed places where it might be helpful to make minor modifications based on what we know about students. Most often, this involves slightly changing the language of a question or inserting a quick think-aloud. In this case, Brittini realized she might need to clarify for students  that the Misses Philpot are actually the Phlipot sisters, so she noted that in her annotated close read-aloud guide.

When you modify a close read-aloud, how do you ensure that you still maintain the integrity of the lesson?

Brittini: The focus question is the anchor. If I do generate my own questions (which I don’t do very often because the guide itself is very comprehensive) I keep the focus question at the forefront of my mind. I ask myself “Is the question I’m adding helping students make progress toward the focus question?” Occasionally, I’ll ask clarifying questions that help my students relate the learning or text to their own lives. Also, because I’m familiar with the purpose of the day’s session, I’m able to spontaneously rephrase the question just a bit so that it’s more accessible to my  students. Based on my knowledge of my students, I might add brief modeling and a think-aloud in the close read-aloud if I anticipate that my students might struggle. I pre-plan this so I’m able to keep it brief and impactful.

Let’s turn our attention to student engagement and pacing, two potentially tricky spots of close read-aloud implementation. Brittini, how do you maintain student engagement and excitement through multiple reads?

Brittini: My students stay really engaged during a close read-aloud if I show excitement and interest. I truly believe that my behaviors and attitudes are contagious. Also, I’m very explicit about setting the purpose of the the day’s reading for students. The why is essential for me and my students. I often anchor the why in the guiding questions of the module and that serves as the hook for students. For example, in this particular close-read aloud, students apply their understanding of the structure and meaning of the Language Dive sentence when thinking about the Unit 1 guiding question, “What do paleontologists do?” Students are so curious about fossils and paleontologists that they want to learn as much as they can about the topic

Brittini Whetstone, 2nd grade teacher at Joe Shoemaker Elementary, leads her students through a Language Dive embedded in a close read-aloud experience. 

How do you manage pacing during close read-alouds?  

Brittini: Purpose is key. I keep the purpose of the close read-aloud in the forefront of my mind and that helps me maintain pacing. I’m not perfect though, and sometimes I realize that I’m not going to get through everything in the session. I’ll make in-the-moment decisions and try to pull out what’s important. I give myself grace and use that as a learning experience for next time! Sometimes I realize that instead of having kids do lots of guessing, it’s best for me to tell and move on. For example, in this close read-aloud session they didn’t know the meaning of the word “preserve” and I just told them the meaning.  

Also, I make modifications based on what I know about students. In this session there was a role play protocol, which I knew I wouldn’t have time do in its entirety because of the Language Dive, so I modified it just a bit.   

Overall, a sense of urgency is the undertone during close read-alouds. Students know that we have important work to do as readers and writers and we don’t have a second to waste.

2nd grade students engage in a conversation protocol during a close read-aloud of the text Stone Girl, Bone Girl. 

Pete, what have you found to be teachers’ most significant challenges with close read-alouds and what strategies have you used to help teach them with more success and confidence?

Pete: The lesson plans and close read-aloud guides are meaty, so I work with teachers to help them strategically read the materials. For example, it’s tempting to want to skip the teaching notes section, but those contain information that helps teachers understand the purpose and how this lesson fits into the bigger picture of the unit or module. In this lesson, the teaching notes help teachers understand how each chunk of this lesson supports students’ progress towards the standards that will be assessed in the Unit 1 assessment.

Because the curriculum reflects a paradigm shift for some teachers, they sometimes want to make changes that significantly  impact the integrity of a lesson or close read-aloud session. I try to help teachers see the logic of the design and trust it and commit to it. The trust piece is really key.  

Because the curriculum reflects a paradigm shift for some teachers, they sometimes want to make changes that significantly impact the integrity of a lesson or close read-aloud session. I try to help teachers see the logic of the design and trust it and commit to it. The trust piece is really key

As Pete and Brittini so clearly outline, an intentional planning process lies at the heart of successful implementation of close read-alouds. It’s essential for teachers to keep the big picture purpose in mind as they make modifications to best meet the needs of students. With time, teachers become more comfortable with the routines and  protocols that underpin close read-alouds. This understanding, combined with growing knowledge of students’ needs, will undoubtedly support pacing. And thank you, Pete and Brittini, for the reminder to trust ourselves, the curriculum, and above all, students, to do the rigorous and joyful work of close read-alouds.