There’s a common phrase amongst teachers… Teachers don’t teach the standards they teach the students. This means our focus, as teachers, is to provide each and every student exactly what they need to succeed. This can be difficult when you have a classroom full of 25+ students! What can we do for identifying students’ needs when teaching and provide them the best instruction and support possible? I have some ideas that might help!
Identifying Students’ Needs #1 – Be Aware of the Text
A teacher’s brain is different than a student’s brain when reading. We, as adults, are very strong readers who have decoding skills, a large vocabulary, and plenty of background knowledge to apply to what we read. This makes our reading experience VASTLY different than a student’s. Why is this relevant? Teachers might not pick up on the little areas of a text that students could potentially be problematic. They may miss an inference or irrelevant detail that could trip up students. Pre-reading a text and knowing potential areas of issue is one of the best and easiest ways to identify needs for students.
First, always read the text prior to giving it to your students. Slow down your reading and your thinking and put yourself in your students’ shoes. Ask yourself, ‘What type of thinking is needed in order to comprehend this text? Once you know this, you’re better able to match problem areas to specific groups of students, ask certain questions during the text, and prevent hiccups along the way!
#2 – Understand How Skills and Standards Support Each Other
Every skill has a breakdown of prerequisites that support it. Those prerequisites may be the actual cause of misconceptions that students have. We need to fully understand our standards and skills/strategies to know where connections between them are made. What we believe is a problem area for students based on their inability to master a skill might not be what we think. We need to dig deeper to find the true misconception that’s happening.
For example, main idea is a skill many students struggle with, but when we break it down it may not be main idea they need support with. It could be determining importance, visualizing, sequencing, etc. These are prerequisite skills that support the skill of main idea and could potentially be the reason why a student struggles with finding the main idea of a text
Identifying Students’ Needs #3 – Using Open VS. Closed Questions
Getting to know students’ areas of need depends on the types of questions we are asking. Closed questions don’t give us information. They tell us whether or not students can guess and deduce based on given choices. Open questions allow for total transparency in a given question and skill. Not only can we see if students have the right answer but we can also see the variations of depth within their answer. Did they give the bare minimum? How much evidence did they use? Did they take their answer beyond the text and into their world and make connections? If we aren’t asking the right questions, we won’t be getting the right kind of data nor will students achieve deeper comprehension.
#4 – Using Tiered Questions
I talk about this more in-depth in my Building Comprehension online course for teachers. Tiered questions help with getting to the root of the problem. When a student gives an incorrect answer, we used tiered questions to ‘back up’ and find the root of the problem. Basically, it’s breaking the question down into bits and pieces, prerequisites, to see where the misconceptions lie.
An example would be: What is the central message the author is trying to tell us within the text? What is something in the text that you would determine to be important to the story? Do you think ______ would be an important fact or an interesting fact?
Identifying Students’ Needs #5 – Conferences Vs. Paper/Pencil Assessments
Even the best of written assessments only go so far. They are black and white, ask a limited number of questions, don’t go beyond the questions to dig deeper, etc. If we truly want to know where our students are growing and needing support, we need to actually TALK to them. Having a weekly conference is a much stronger approach to learning our students’ needs than paper/pencil. We can absolutely do both but making an intentional effort to meet with our students is vital.
#6 – Analyzing Assessment Questions
If we HAVE to give paper/pencil assessments, analyzing questions is a must. When we give assessments, do we really understand WHAT the questions are asking? Do we know which skills are being assessed and how/why those skills are important to comprehend the text? Some skill questions can be asked but have nothing to do with understanding the text, so why are they being asked. Always READ the text, READ the questions, analyze the questions for WHAT is being asked and decide if those questions are worthy to stay or if they need to be changed.
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