The beginning of a new school term means new students. Sometimes we'll see faces we know from the previous year, but often we see a fresh slate. Fresh, but not blank. They bring with them literacy experiences from other classrooms, from their homes, and from their communities.
The challenge is to figure out what they know and connect to that prior knowledge and experience as soon as possible. Sure we could read through permanent files, ask for writing samples, and give them entrance tests.
The problem is all those strategies still require us to analyze the data and try to find (or more likely, guess) the most important influences and experiences. Why not choose a more straightforward method? Ask them. Here are five strategies you can try:
- Write about Writing with Analogies Ask students to reflect on their writing habits and process. Using the resources in this ReadWriteThink.org lesson, you learn much about how students write and about how their attitudes toward writing. Are they confident? Do they have a lot of anxieties about writing? Do they write a lot or very little? This activity will reveal all! Modify the lesson a bit, and you can ask students to tell you about themselves as readers.
- Compose Technology Autobiographies Today's students have always had computers somewhere in their community. They may think they spent no time writing during the summer months—until you ask them if they posted blog entries and status updates on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Ask students to tell you about their regular or most significant interactions with technology with this ReadWriteThink.org lesson. Their stories will reveal their 21st century literacy skills.
- Keep Writer’s Logs Use the reflective questions in this ReadWriteThink.org lesson to ask students to tell you about their literacy experiences and attitudes. Begin by asking students to respond to a key question or two about their literacy experiences in the past. Try a question like "How is your reading and writing during the summer different from during the school year?" or "What has been your favorite writing (or reading) experience and why?" The lesson provides for ongoing reflection on the writing students do, a process that will keep you informed about the writers you teach.
- Make Reading Plans You can learn much about students' prior knowledge by asking them to tell you about what they want to do in the future. This ReadWriteThink.org lesson asks students to analyze the reading they've done in the past and make a plan for the future. As you read and respond to their work, you not only learn about their likes and dislikes as readers, but you also help them shape individual reading plans for the weeks to come.
- Build a Literacy Gallery NCTE invites all writers to submit one piece of writing that is important to them to the National Gallery of Writing. Kick off your own gallery by asking students to share an artifact of their writing process that is significant—a favorite pen, something they have written, a diary. Anything. The discussion will reveal much about the students and their experience and habits as writers. After your literary show and tell session, work together to set up a class or school gallery, as part of the National Gallery of Writing.