The biggest hindrance to student comprehension when reading science texts, in my opinion, is the content vocabulary. Good readers can use the context to determine meaning without too much effort, however, students who struggle with reading typically do not take the time to do this and therefore their comprehension suffers, making reading a waste of their time rather than a learning opportunity. Students need to learn strategies that assist them in reading informational texts in a way that appeals to their social nature, is enjoyable and allows them to apply their strengths and creativity. That is the purpose of this activity.
Give students a copy of Introduction To Dinosaurs Among Us (not edited). Provide students a few minutes to highlight or underline some of the words in the article that they do not know/understand. Reinforce the idea that they are not reading the article at this time, they are just scanning for the words at this time. Take a few minutes to allow students to share some of these words as a class and record their responses on the whiteboard. These words can be used as informal formative assessment as students work by asking students to explain what they mean as you monitor group work.
A little bit of background:
Reading to learn is challenging for a large number of the students that I teach and the complex science terms do nothing to help that problem. Historically, students would obediently read any assignment but would comprehend very little. Because I had to teach the same content over again, having students read did not save me any time. When I started having students "translate" information into what I call "regular people speak" I started to see a large increase in student understanding. It is worth the extra time it takes to complete such activities because it provides students with a strategy that can benefit them throughout their education.
Additionally, this supports common core standards RI8.2, determine a central idea of a text and provide an objective summary of the text, RI8.4, determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, and W8.4, produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience while developing students' understanding of common ancestry, DCI MS-LS4.
The article used for this activity comes from a class I took through Seminars on Science from The American Museum of Natural History, a truly excellent course. The article is written by Dr. Mark A. Norell who is the curator in charge of the division of paleontology. I like to use this type of reading as it provides students with information from the people who are closest to the current research. I print copies of the Introduction To Dinosaurs Among Us (Not Edited) version for students, but put Introduction To Dinosaurs Among Us (Edited Font Size and Spacing) on my webpage for students to access online because I find it easier to read. The links found on the last page are worth looking at as they give a lot of background on dinosaurs for students want/need the information.
The following is how I introduce students to their task:
We are using dinosaurs as the focus of our discussion on evolution and the concept of common ancestry. Because of that, it is important that we gain some common background on dinosaurs that includes some of the vocabulary that you will come across as we work through this unit.
Working with a partner or a group of three, you will read this article and "translate" it into a digital picture book appropriate for a 5th/6th grade student. You will have 2 days to complete this task. Your translation must maintain all accuracy and information, you are just changing the wording and adding explanations and pictures to help make the information easier to understand.
Select your pictures carefully, they should be relevant to the information on the page and should work to increase understanding of that information. Also, keep the format of a picture book in mind. There is not a large amount of text per page and the same should be true of your book.
You may hand draw your pictures if you choose, you will just need to scan the final version into the computer to use in your digital book.
Refer to the Picture Book Checklist to ensure you meet all project requirements.
My students have come to appreciate checklists and (for those that actually use them) it allows them to work independently at their own pace.
Before turning my students loose, we go over the first paragraph together so they know what I mean by translating text.
The opening paragraph reads:
When most people think of dinosaurs, they usually think of two kinds—those with small heads, long necks, and tails that walk on four limbs, and Godzilla-like monsters that walk on two limbs and may or may not breathe fire. While this depiction is vastly oversimplified, fire-breathing aside, these stereotypes are based on fossil evidence.
I project this onto the screen at the front of the room and ask students for ideas on how to turn this into picture book format. One example might be having a picture of children pretending to be different types of dinosaurs with a thought bubble showing the dinosaur that each child is pretending to be (this is more of a hand drawn example). A more literal image would involve several different pictures of dinosaur images, including fossil images.
After students develop some picture possibilities, we work on translating the text and discuss how the text must match the illustration. For example, the illustration with the children might have text that includes the children arguing about the "best" or strongest dinosaur. The second example might just state that our thoughts about dinosaurs are based on the fossils that have been discovered.
This type of activity allows students to be as creative as they desire while learning the same information.
Now that you have completed your story book translation, I want you to reflect on the process by completing these sentence stems in your science journal:
I like to include some type of reflection activity to allow students to identify challenges and successes throughout the project. These can be related to either the work itself or the process of working in a collaborative group. It is important for students to begin to develop meta-cognitive skills so they can begin to work in the most efficient and effective manner to make the most use of their time.
If time allows, this is an excellent video that discusses the fossil evidence that shows the link between dinosaurs and birds from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and works well to enhance the reading. I assign the viewing of this video as homework as we will be referring back to it during the lesson Using Movies: Origins of Birds.