Posted in Assessment, Reading

A New Resource To Help Students Read Old Classics

Getting a Grip on Classic LitClassic literature is tough for today’s students. The formality, complicated sentence structures and use of archaic words is intimidating. It’s a pretty safe bet, though, it will be part of your state or district’s end-of-year testing. When reviewing my state’s released tests, I found that every one of them—from grades 5 through 10—included text written over a hundred years ago. So, how can we help students prepare, not just for the reading skills they’ll need to master, but for the stamina and confidence required to tackle these uniquely complex texts?

First, it’s important to understand just what makes classic literature so daunting. Take this excerpt from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Seventh graders at our school must tackle this text, and even though it doesn’t contain the even more forbidding thee, thou, and thine (a triple-threat which actually has to be translated into present-day English pronouns), it brings my struggling readers up short every time. Does “Mind!” mean the author is being introspective, addressing himself (as he certainly appears to be later in the paragraph)? Is “Mind!” a command to behave? (My students are apparently familiar with this usage.) In fact, here it means neither and “Mind!” is instead a lost meaning of the word asking the reader to “pay attention.”  Forging ahead, students are then derailed by “ironmongery” and the less familiar use of “trade” to mean business (not a swap).

Old English is quite verbose. Whereas today’s communicator often wants to “get right to the point,” many classic texts feature a great deal of introspection and complex sentence structures that often interrupt one idea with another, parenthetical thought. At times it can be redundant, “…I know, of my own knowledge…” or “I might have been inclined, myself…” It is also painfully formal “You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically…” Obviously, Dickens was never influenced by the Nike motto: Just do it!

All of this is to say, Old English is troublesome because it is not something students encounter every day. Which got me to thinking… what if they did?  What if I could indoctrinate my students in the ways of Ye Olde Tyme texts with brief, but repeated exposure to same? For just a few minutes each day, we’d apply a reading skill they’d already learned to a couple of paragraphs of more challenging classic literature. It was also important to me that they get vocabulary support, where needed, and immediate feedback on their efforts. I combined this idea with my desire to review the important reading skills we’d been working on all year and started creating daily warm-ups that feature challenging texts.

This is how I’m prepping my kids for the state test. Every day, they complete one half-page activity during the first four or five minutes of class. I leave a stack of them at the front of the room, and—with minimal direction—students quickly learned to pick one as they entered and immediately work on it. After I’ve taken attendance and handled whatever pressing business presented itself (inevitably), we review the answers together. I call on student volunteers (or volun-tolds) to share their answers along with their thinking. This creates an opportunity to model valuable test-taking strategies. “What is the question asking for?” “Why isn’t ____ the right answer?” “Why is the answer you chose correct?” The review can be as brief or as extensive as your time or situation requires. If I have time while students are working, I circulate—making a point to consult with any student who seems to be struggling.

I mix it up a little. Some days they get a literary text, other days it’s informational. Even many of the nonfiction pieces are more challenging classics: a speech by Amelia Earhart, a political cartoon from the 1920s, the classic “Yes, Virginia…” New York Sun editorial. That variety, too, is good preparation for year-end assessments.

Using these warm-ups, my students grew more confident and more proficient reading complex texts. A colleague who spotted them at the copier one day asked to use them, too. Our classes couldn’t be more different. She teaches gifted and advanced sixth graders, while I was teaching 7th and 8th grade struggling readers. When we compared notes later, both groups benefitted (and we enjoyed how engaging the task was… truly bell to bell learning).

Even better… this activity takes very little time—about five minutes a day. With so many standards to cover and review before test day, this was a no brainer. We covered dozens of different skills, built vocabulary, and increased student confidence and stamina with complex texts.

If you want to try it in your classroom, I’m including a link to a free one-week supply—five unique warm-ups to give your students practice with classic and complex texts. Since they’re basically targeted mini-assessments, you could also use them as exit slips or quizzes, too. I’d love to know what you think!