The first part of this article shared important features of Embedded Reading. The final version of the text is one that students might not be confident of reading at first glance. The teacher reduces or limits the text to critical elements for the first version. The teacher inserts dialogue, description, and information in manageable bites into subsequent versions. Then the teacher plans lessons for purposeful yet varied access to the reading.
Whether the teacher is creating stories from the “Bottom Up” or using existing texts from the “Top Down,” the first version students read is the clear, simple outline: just the facts. This version could summarize a brochure about a city tour, a class story that has been or will be written, or the first chapter of a novel. Further details, dialogue and information will be inserted at many points in the text. These are “Embedded Readings,” not “Expanded Readings.”
Every student in the class should have a clear visual image and complete comprehension of the first text version. Teachers can support the visual image by asking students to draw pictures for later comparison, to act out roles, or to close their eyes while being read to. In classes with mostly weak readers, this may be a time to use the first language to explain to students that visualizing a text is a tool that strong readers use.
This idea of a clear visual image has helped me support students in English classes as well as in Russian. Until I started using Embedded Reading, I thought that I should help struggling readers understand the opening of a story perfectly, and that reading a first chapter together would make the rest of a book clear. Those techniques work with strong readers, who are then hooked. As a strong reader myself, I did not understand the needs of weak readers until finding out how much scaffolding helped them. Before students in an English class for credit recovery take on a story, I now summarize the whole story – giving them an oral rendition of the first version of an Embedded Reading – leading them to imagine others in the class playing the roles. Then, just as they’re hanging on me to find out how the story ends or why it ended in some way, I hand over the text. Students are anxious to read and fill in the holes.
Jason Fritze has said that we shouldn’t mix new cultural concepts with new structures. The same can be said for reading: when students know the basic plot (if not the interesting details) in advance, the target language doesn’t get in the way when they read. This concept is the reason that we show a section of a film before re-running it in MovieTalk, or establish a situation before digging for details when story-asking. If students have to attend to both visual and auditory at the same time, or the image in their heads and the words on the paper, they can attend well to only one. Therefore, taking a long time to blaze the initial reading’s image into students’ minds has many benefits, including the unforced repetition of important vocabulary structures. Weaker readers are much more willing to attempt the challenge of more complex versions of a story, knowing from the outset most of what’s going on.
In Russian classes, we sometimes act out a story or create a parallel story before starting the first version of an Embedded reading. Students like to see where their ideas dovetail with or improve on the actual story, and as Blaine Ray has demonstrated, parallel stories give the class much more to discuss.
Working with Native American language groups, I have helped “collapse” traditional stories in the same way that we work with fairy tales in Russian classes. This is a typical “Top Down” approach. By cutting texts to a total of three comprehensible sentences, teachers find that stories have “bones” on which everything else hangs. It’s easiest to do this in a word processor, cutting and pasting ever-shorter versions of the stories. Keeping existing repetition as long as possible adds a sense of recognition for readers.
I had the sudden idea that, if a group of students would be together for a number of years, one might offer them version one of a story the first year, and return to subsequent versions of the stories each succeeding year. But even without that kind of freedom or continuity, we will continue to benefit by using increasingly complex versions of authentic stories over time in a semester or year-long class, up to the level our students best understand.
The “Top Down” approach works with current news stories, songs, chapters and op-ed pieces. In every case, a teacher has to gauge which version of the reading will be the limit for students: ideally they are finding that all the reading is easy. The easier a text seems, the more positive the prevailing attitude becomes toward reading. Flexibility is key: sometimes students show that a text is harder than the teacher expected, and sometimes they will need less support. Stopping earlier is better than pushing students beyond their level.
The “Bottom Up” style of Embedded Readings requires creativity. One way to get ideas is to give students copies of a base story they know and ask them to embroider it, whether in first or target language. The teacher decides which details, dialogue and plot twists to include for the next reading. In this option, my students read the next version actively, hoping to find their own ideas. Later, when students have contributed to several sets of Embedded Readings, they begin to use these ideas to improve their writing. Several students have told me that they get better grades in Language Arts because of working on Embedded Readings with me.
My students recently gave me a new way to develop “Top Down” Embedded Readings. I shared with the most advanced students in a mixed class the online texts that I was considering using for an upcoming unit. I asked them to mark what they understood. One student bolded all the text that she could comprehend. Logistically, creating the next level down was easy, because I could see what I wanted to keep. I could also decide immediately whether the structures she didn’t understand were worth focus as we approached the reading. In usual classwork, when we reach the final version of a text, students sometimes tell me that it was too easy, not worth the class time we spent working through several levels. Because they’re solid at using that language later, I usually feel vindicated. But it was payback for me when I watched the faces of kids who had pre-read texts as we got to the final level of the originals. Big smiles told me that they knew what our process had done.
Direct Instruction of Academic Vocabulary: What About Real Reading? Stephen Krashen Reading Research Quarterly, 47(3): 233. 2012
Nagy, Herman, and Anderson, 1985
Michele Whaley is a Russian teacher at West High School in Anchorage, Alaska. She has taught middle school, high school, and adult Russian classes for thirty years. A former president of Alaskans for Language Acquisition (AFLA), she serves on the annual conference committee team. She is the 2014 AFLA Teacher of the Year and 2016 PNCFL ToY. As a Board Member of the American Councils of Teachers of Russian, she writes about technology and Language for the ACTR Letter. Whaley initiated a PLC on teaching with TPRS and CI for a group of Alaskan teachers that has met for seven years. Her passions are literacy and comprehensible input. For her, language acquisition is all about connections and sharing stories. Read more from Michele at her blog.