You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover: Analyzing and Critiquing Content Area Texts

by Toni Czekanski

Intermediate/Middle School Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

“Thinking about the text,” one of the three areas of thinking defined in The Continuum of Literacy Learning by Pinnell and Fountas, (2011) includes the processes of analyzing and critiquing.  These are ways of thinking that happen after we read the text, and consider not only how it was crafted, but also how the information was presented, and whether or not it was presented in a way that allowed for understanding or enjoyment.  This kind of thinking can be applied to any text, but let’s consider how we might engage in a process of applying it to content area texts, those texts we use to support learning in social studies, science, math, and English.  As we all become more familiar with the Common Core Standards, we notice that there is a great deal of focus on nonfiction reading and writing.  By helping our students to look critically at different kinds of texts, notice how they are written, and what about those texts supports or challenges them as readers, we can help them appreciate that texts are written for different purposes, and that they might have to adjust their reading in order to gain understanding from those texts.

Analyzing the text:  Whether we teach in self-contained classrooms, or in departmentalized teams, we have to help our students learn in the content areas.  One of the first questions we might ask ourselves is, “What kind of reading do my students do in this content area?”  Do they read textbooks, short published pieces like magazine articles, trade books, or something else?  Is everything they read in this subject area the same (i.e., all textbook reading)?  Or is it a mixture of texts that come in a variety of forms, structures, and genres?  Stop and take a few minutes to look at one of the texts your students read, and consider the following:  What demands does it place on them as readers?  What might you do to support them in understanding how this text works?  What have you done to provide this support before asking them to do the required reading?  Have you discussed with them what it means to read like a scientist?  A historian?  Do they know that the structure or features of a text can be helpful…or confusing?  Write down two or three things you might want to share with them after having examined the text you chose.  Is there something about its structure?  The style of writing the author uses?  The layout of the chapters?  What features does it include?  By understanding how the text works, and having discussions about ways to approach it, students have a better chance of understanding what they are reading…so let’s get on to thinking about the text with our students.

Reading the text:  Ask your students to take the text home with them, read a section of it, and then think about how the author(s) wrote it.  Rather than focusing on the content of the chapter, they will examine it analytically and critically.  As they read this text they might ask themselves…What about this text is “friendly?”  Is there anything that presents problems for them?  How does the author present information?  Is it clear and concise, or lacking in detail that might interest the reader?  Is it boring or breathtaking?  What about it pulls readers in, or pushes them away?  Are there features that are helpful?  Challenging?  Is there a part of the text that is difficult to understand?  Why is that?  Ask students to jot down a few notes that will help them discuss what they learned about this text and how it works for them.

Talking about the text:  The next day, group your students in fours or fives and give them time to talk about this text.  Encourage them to discuss what they noted, and whether they found the text friendly or not.  What did they like about the text?  Dislike?  How might they approach it as readers?  Have they ever read anything like this before?  Listen in on the groups and take notes about what they are saying.  What are you learning by listening in on these conversations?  Perhaps you are getting some ideas about how to support them as readers once you begin assigning reading in this text.  Write down two or three big ideas that you can take into your teaching in the next few days as you help them understand how to work with this text.  By giving your students time to have these critical discussions with each other, you are supporting their ability to collaborate and, and through that collaboration deepen their understanding of how to approach a variety of texts.

Drawing or writing about the text:  Once the students have finished talking with each other about their discoveries, ask each one of them to take some time, either in class or for homework, to draw or write about what they are thinking about this text and how it works.  Perhaps they have learned something from engaging in the conversation with their classmates that will be helpful to them as readers.  How will they approach reading this text so that they can better understand the content in it?  Maybe they will draw a flow chart of how to read the text.  Perhaps they will write a set of directions to follow when they are assigned reading.  It could be that they come up with a series of “notes to self” that will remind them of parts of the text that might be tricky, or parts that they need to attend to carefully.  Maybe it will simply be a paragraph that includes some of the content of the discussion they had with their peers.  Giving them time to reflect on how to approach this kind of text might be helpful to them as they encounter texts that are similar in other content areas.  The next day they might share these ideas with each other, and could also work together to develop the group’s “plan for reading” texts more effectively.

Providing time for close reading of texts, followed by discussion and written reflection is a gift we can give to our students that can help them dig into how they learn.  Considering how they relate to the texts they are required to read, and thinking about what supports and challenges those texts present, can empower students to approach them as active readers who have “met” and interacted with texts along with their classmates in order to know how to approach texts, and read them with interest, enjoyment, and most importantly, understanding of the content they contain.

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