Teaching Strategies and Building Confidence when Deciphering Difficult Text — using an X-Ray!

I recently started playing ultimate frisbee on a somewhat regular basis. It’s been twice a week for about two months, and over the Thanksgiving weekend we added a Thanksgiving morning bonus match. The field has the occasional divot, and my body isn’t used to the start-stop-turn-reach-jump moves that are required in a friendly frisbee game.

After the bonus Thanksgiving match, my family traveled to Ometepe, an island on Lake Nicaragua. It’s stunning, as it was created by two volcanos.

We went on a short hike the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we climbed to the top of one of the volcanos on Saturday, where we had an elevation gain of about 1200 meters in about ten kilometers.

I share this not so that anyone gets the mistaken impression that I’m always exercising, but instead to explain why I needed an X-ray on my poor worn-out foot the following week! And trust me, I’m getting to the reading connection shortly…

Reading difficulty can be measured and categorized in many ways: number of hours, number of pages, titles, genres, Lexiles, text bands, grade levels, content, topic, interest… I’m sure there are many more methods of measurement. Students are challenged by texts for any number of reasons, and sometimes they get stumped. They hit a wall, they run out of strategies and/or confidence for handling a text.

Back to the foot… Because I am in Nicaragua, I had the X-ray taken and then brought it to the doctor to decipher and diagnose the next day, so I had 24 hours to wonder about what I was looking at, or reading. But, when I looked at the X-ray of my foot, like some of my students, I hit a wall. It turns out, I don’t know how to read an X-ray.

foot xray

I realized that some of my students might feel the same way about texts they encounter as I felt about the X-ray – how can they possibly make meaning or find the answers?

So the next day, during the mini-lesson portion of one of my seventh grade English classes, I shared it the X-ray. I didn’t tell them anything before posting it. I didn’t tell them it was mine, or that it was a foot, etc. No information. I just asked if they had ever seen an X-ray and if they knew how to read one.

students with xray

I taped it to the window and invited them to read it. At first, they were a bit baffled. It’s difficult text!

However, with a little time and collaborative conversation, they started to make some sense of it. Some realizations they made as a group:

  • It’s a foot. (Hands have shorter bones)
  • It’s not both feet, but two views of the same left foot. (IZQ is one of the codes – short for izquierda, which is left in Spanish)
  • It belongs to me. (My name was in the lower corner)
  • The date the X-ray was taken. (Very small font, but still there!)
  • My birthday. (Lower corner)
  • Where the X-ray was taken (the name of the hospital is on the bottom)

The conversation was fun, and it felt like we were investigating something together. At this point I didn’t have the answer about whether or not anything was broken as I hadn’t seen the doctor yet, so we got to wonder together, and they knew I couldn’t give them the “right answer” just yet.

What we could do, was find some answers because we did have some knowledge. We simply realized that even with some knowledge, we didn’t have enough expertise, and that sometimes reading difficult stories and articles can make us feel the same way.

Which led us to the lesson, or the connection that the X-ray had to their own reading.

While none of us are orthopedic surgeons, we could still make sense of some of the more obvious pieces of information.

We built some confidence and realized that we could rely on context and background knowledge. We all know where the big toe is on a foot, and could tell where it was on the X-ray, for example.

In the same way, if we don’t learn how to read other texts, we will only be able to make sense of the most obvious things. But texts go beyond the obvious and into the beautiful, the debatable, and the inferential. That’s why we learn signposts, for example. So we can know the important things to notice and we can ask ourselves why. Why do these things matter.

We realized that with proper training and a deliberate education, in time, we could all learn how to read this X-ray, just like we can all learn to read difficult texts, just like we are learning to read challenging texts now.

My students enjoyed the activity, which took only about 15 minutes. They could see that no one is an expert in all kinds of texts, and that I, too, have my limitations. Being vulnerable and honest with students always seems to pay off.

Oh, and as for the final answer? Yes, it was broken, but no, I can’t blame frisbee or volcanoes. Turns out it was an injury from the summer, and the four consecutive days of exercise with no time for rest wasn’t so good for it… I’d been walking on a broken foot for five months… but that’s another story.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Author: adventuresinhighschoolworkshop

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and is currently in her second year teaching in Managua, Nicaragua.

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