By Tequila Butler

IFL ELA Fellow

Previously, we have written about developing high-level comprehension tasks as the foundation of a coherent arc of lessons that supports students’ engagement with the text. We have also written about what constitutes a high-level analysis task. In this article, we highlight the journey and experiences of two teachers in Dallas ISD. Through their work, they have recognized the importance high-level comprehension tasks have on students as they move into analysis work and beyond.

In our work with Dallas ISD we have collaborated with teams of teachers to create arcs of lessons around complex texts that start with high-level comprehension tasks to better support students as they engage in deeper analysis of texts. Teachers have recognized that in order for students to engage in deeper analytical work, students first have to have a basic understanding of the ideas in an informational text or the gist of a story.

In this article, we will hear from teachers from Thomas C. Marsh Prepatory Academy and Alex W. Spence Talented and Gifted Academy. Both schools are located in Dallas, Texas, and serve students in grades 6-8 in the Dallas Independent School District. Both Marsh and Spence are Title I schools with a low-socioeconomic status above 80%. At Marsh, roughly 65% of students are emergent multi-lingual. At Spence, roughly 34% of students are emergent multi-lingual.

Connecting the Dots Between Comprehension and Analysis

Recently, Sara Cram, an eighth-grade English teacher at Marsh Prep Academy in Dallas ISD, adjusted her lesson plans and pacing guide to focus on comprehension first. Prior to this adaption, students in Ms. Cram’s class were sometimes asked to simultaneously making sense of the text while also analyzing characters, the author’s purpose, or text structures. The adaptations she made to her lesson plans and pacing guide in a recent novel study unit provided students with a 90-minute block of time focused on comprehension, before diving deeper into higher-level analysis tasks and questions that asked students to analyze the author’s purpose and message within the text.

Through this adjustment, Ms. Cram found that students were able to enhance their analytical skills and had better products as the work with each chapter progressed.

On day 1, students were able to compose quick writes that detailed the big ideas from a particular chapter. Here are two examples of student generated quick writes.

Quick Write – Student A

Ellie has arrived at the concentration camp and sees many things in the entry. He says he shall never forget that night because that night he had lost is faith.

Quick Write – Student B

Ellie is a young boy who then gets taken away. His experience is unforgettable which is why the author uses parallelism, because he wants to expres how bad the experience was.

By day 3, students were able to chart about the author’s purpose. After spending a day exploring the big idea in that specific chapter, students were able to connect the big idea to the message and author’s purpose. Students were asked to create a title for the chapter that reflects the author’s purpose for writing it and to provide details from the text to support their claims about the author’s purpose.

Author’s Purpose Task – Student C

Turning Point

Elies purpose for including  this chapter is to mourn the cruelty of the Jews and the way he was losing faith in god. (Pg 34)

This chapter is included this chapter to show that Eli is finally realizing that everything is changing and he is losing faith in god. “Those flames consumed my faith” (Pg 34).

“Never shall i forget those flames that consumed my faith forever” (Pg 34).

“In the afternoon, they made us line up.three prisoners brought a table and some medical instruments we were told to roll up arm sleeves and file past the table.The three veteran prisoners needle in hand tattooed numbers on the left arm” (Pg 42).

Author’s Purpose Task – Student D

Forever Lost

Elie’s purpose of this chapter is to inform people about what he had to deal with and how he felt during his time at the camp.

On page 34, he said, “Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.” He’s never going to be the same again.

On page 34, he repeats the phrase, “Never shall I forget.” This shows that all the events that happened that night, will forever be stuck in his mind.

On page 37, he said, “My soul had been invaded and devoured by a black flame,” meaning so many bad things had happened in such little time he’s lost.

Author’s Purpose Task – Student E

Never Will I Forget

Ellie’s purpose on his purpose on his wording is to represent judging the fact of him losing his faith in the one who he trusted (God). 

Page 34, represents helps you understand that, it helps you see the pain hes feeling and how much more its going to increase.

That night, is where true hell started.

On page 45, it says, “I ceased to pray! I was not denying his existence, but i doubted his absolute justice.”

Ellie had to witness looking at people die and suffer. It is showing how that night everything about him changed as he is getting traumatized with all the events/problems he had to go through. On page 41, it says “hell does not last forever” meaning he feel lost as he lost his faith and he completely changed after that night.

Ms. Cram’s test data also supported that the inclusion of comprehension tasks before analysis tasks strengthened students’ analytical work. This adaption resulted in a 26-point growth amongst her classes from their first district assessment to their third within the same quarter on analysis skills including characterization and author’s purpose. These were the same skills outlined in the analytical work Ms. Cram’s students engaged in throughout the arc of tasks.

Seventh grade teachers at Marsh Prep also saw similar success in analysis work that started with comprehension. In a recent unit where students engaged with paired passages, students first built a foundation around the big ideas in both texts, before diving deeper into analytical skills. By the end of the unit, students were able to engage in a quick write to essay process that asked students to make claims and use evidence from both texts to support their claims.

During the quick write to essay process, students deepened and expanded their understanding of the text by responding to the following prompts:

Quick Write
Purpose and Intent
What message does the author reveal about borders? Asks students to first name the specific message that the author is sending around the big idea of borders in the text.
How does the author’s use of figurative language help to reveal the message on borders? Asks students to analyze how the author’s use of language, specifically figurative language contributes to the author’s big idea and message on borders.
What are some of the borders in your life? Do you think that these borders are useful or troublesome? What evidence from the poem supports whether these borders are useful or troublesome? Asks students to make connections to the text and build on their understanding of the ideas presented in the text.
Make connections to the anchor text for the unit. Asks students to make connections and meaning of the ideas presented in one text across multiple texts.

At the end of the unit, students were asked to write an opinion essay. They used their responses to the quick writes above to respond to the prompt: How does the physical obstacle that a border presents compare to the mental and emotional obstacles we face in life? 

Quick Write 1

Student Comprehension Quick Write

Throughout the unit, students completed comprehension tasks that asked them to discuss the big ideas presented in each text. After identifying the big idea, students were then able to spend time analyzing the big ideas and the messages presented by the author in each perspective text.

In this quick write, students were asked to write on what the speaker was saying about borders in the poem “The Border: A Double Sonnet” by Alberto Rios. Student samples show that they not only understood what the author was talking about, but that they were also beginning to understand how the author used language to communicate the big ideas in the text.

2-15 Article Student Essay Excerpt

Excerpt from Student Essay Sample

At the end of the unit, students were asked to compose an essay that answered the following prompt: How does the physical obstacle that a border presents compare to the mental and emotional obstacles we face in life? In this student sample, the student was able to go back and pull examples from two texts, a poem titled “The Border: A Double Sonnet” by Alberto Rios and “Harbor Me” by Jacqueline Woodson.

When analyzing the student work samples, Shakoya O’Quinn-Jones, the 7th grade lead teacher and coach, noted that, “The depth and ability of all students to do this level of work this early is a direct result of the time we spent on the comprehension task sheet within this arc of lessons.” The essays showed that students not only understood the message the author conveyed using imagery, but they were also able to make connections across and within texts. Additionally, students were able to support their claims with evidence from several texts. In all, students were excelling in writing and analytical skills where they traditionally struggled.

In a recent PLC meeting, Savannah Prince, a 6th grade teacher from Spence Middle School, stated that she would continue to practice and push for comprehension with her students because, “The times when I have been able to slow down and adjust the pacing for comprehension allowed for buy-in from students as well as an increase in student independence and confidence…”

While we believe that every good unit or arc of lessons begins with a focus on comprehension, we know that we cannot stop at comprehension. We have to engage students in high-level analytical and interpretive work. We invite you to take a deeper look at the analytical work you are asking students to do. What did you ask students to do before they engaged in the analysis work? How can you elicit high-level analysis work from all students?