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Making Sense of Sentences

I read “Let’s Get Higher Scores on These New Assessments” by Timothy Shanahan in this month’s issue of The Reading Teacher (published by ILA). The journal really hit the spot with me in March. My school is so wrapped up with raising test scores that it’s easy to get sucked into the “test prep” mode of teaching. Every year it happens: “What are you going to do to prepare for ISTEP?” Well…I’m going to teach my students to read, to think, and to show what they know. I’ve never been one for “test prep” strategies, such as workbooks of reading passages with attached comprehension questions, written by testing companies to supposedly get kids to higher achievement levels. I know they don’t work; I’ve known for years. Shanahan stated, “The problem with this very popular approach is that it doesn’t work…It’s as effective as pushing the elevator button multiple times to hurry it along or turning the thermostat to 90 degrees to make a room warm up faster.” (460)

What does work, then, when it comes to passing standardized tests? Shanahan recommends teaching students to tackle those reading passages in a manner that will help them to show what they know. Once students know how to play the testing game better– once they have clear strategies that work — they can perform better. These approaches will help students to take action when they don’t understand. Students can have some control and power over these readings, and face their demons head on. One of the strategies is to teach students to “make sense of sentences.” This basic sentence know-how will help students to achieve.

First, students should read the difficult sentence and ask a couple of questions: 1) Who is involved? and  2) What is happening? I remember learning The Shurley Method 20 years ago. The “Question-and-Answer Flow” had students ask (after reading the sentence): “Who or What is (doing the action)?” Then they ask: “What is being said about (the “Who” or “What”)? For example:

The young boy ran quickly.

“Who ran quickly?” (The boy)      “What is being said about boy?” (he ran quickly)

This is a very basic account of The Shurley Method; there’s much more to the question-and-answer flow. My point (and Shanahan’s premise) is that once students know how sentences work, they can figure out what the sentences are telling them, and, therefore, answer questions and comprehend more easily.

Another strategy is to teach students how to take sentences apart in meaningful ways. In the example above, students can use the questioning strategies to help them to find the subjects and verbs. When moving to longer sentences, Shanahan noted that students can “break a sentence up at the punctuation points and at words like and, or, and that.” (461) Commas in sentences have a purpose; knowing how to break the parts down, and then reconnect them, aids comprehension. The article used a long sentence, as would a standardized testing passage. For my purposes here, I’ll use a passage from our current social studies textbook,The Western World:

“Italy remained divided into small states until the mid-1800s. At that time, a rise in nationalism, or strong patriotic feelings for a country, led people across Italy to fight for unification. As a result of their efforts, Italy became a unified kingdom in 1861.” (Holt McDougal, 531)

In this passage, “nationalism” IS “strong patriotic feelings for a country” (vocabulary). Once students know how to break up the vocabulary word from its appositive, they understand that the sentence actually defines the word, and then sentence as a whole becomes easier to handle. The last sentence has a dependent clause: “As a result of their efforts…” A student should say, “What? What is the result?” They can look for the “finish” at the end of the passage.

Shanahan presented more techniques in the article; I’m using his guidance for my mini lessons. Teachers can teach students ways to read text so that they understand and can help themselves towards success. When teachers teach the transferable strategies of reading, students will learn. “Test prep” then becomes “reading prep” or “learning prep” — something that the students can use every day of their lives, and not just on tests. Timothy Shanahan provided instructors with sensible methods to help students become stronger readers. He mentioned a few excellent strategies; I chose “making sense of sentences” for this post, because that’s what I’m currently doing with my students. I hope to see students’ standardized test scores improve, of course. I really hope my students will use their new-found knowledge to become strong, life-long readers and learners. A teacher can only teach, and hope.