Tinkering
with the
Text
By Andrew Ordover, Ed.D.

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
­— Kenneth Graham, “The Wind in the Willows”

W

e all want our students to read and grapple with interesting texts, but how do we know whether a text we assign will be interesting … whatever that means? Do we look at the topic? The genre? The author’s use of language? The font size?

Well, all right … maybe not font size. But what can we rely on? What do we do when only some of our students (or none of them) are engaged by the material we bring to them? Some people argue that we need to change the curriculum to make it more relevant to our students. Others argue that we need to make the students care more about the curriculum we already have. Do not read this book; read that book. Do not cover this topic; cover that topic.

It can be incredibly difficult to find reading content that is equally compelling and fascinating to every single learner in your classroom. But, looking for that single magic text is actually a mistake. The fact is, nothing in this world is inherently, by-its-very-nature, interesting. Things are interesting only to the extent that we bring our curiosity to them. Our investment of interest is what makes things interesting.

Man with headphones using a laptop

This means, I think, that ANY piece of text can be compelling; it all depends on what we do with it and what we let students do with it. When students see a text as a series of tasks to complete — an assignment that well-behaved students will comply with, regardless of how they feel about it—well, just writing those words makes me feel depressed. But it does not have to be that way. We can move from compliance to compelling — from chore to play.

When I say “play,” I do not mean that we need to gamify our lessons (again, whatever that means). I mean that we can find meaningful things for students to explore and tinker with, in a text — opportunities to play with language, with structure, and with ideas, instead of simply responding to questions.

As the historian, Johan Huizinga, writes, “Everything we think of as culture originates in some form of play. We are homo ludens — a species that learns through play.” The statistician and author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, says much the same thing in his book, Antifragile, “Our understanding of the world comes first from tinkering and only later from scholarship.” For us as educators, a text can be more than a thing to read and respond to; it can be a playground for students to mess about in.

The Accordion

Are you aware of how many fractions exist between the numbers 1 and 2? The answer is an infinite number. Even if you only divided things in half, you could go on halving numbers forever: first between 1 and 2, then between 1 and one-half, then between 1 and one-quarter, then between 1 and one-eighth … on and on it goes, literally forever, into the inconceivably infinitesimal. A number line can be an accordion, opening up and playing notes you have never heard before.

Can a text work like this? I cannot claim a news article can be plumbed infinitely, but there is certainly more in even the simplest piece of writing than most of us tend to make use of. There is abundant raw material to explore and play with, from the whole text to an individual paragraph, to a single sentence and even a word. When you are working with students on a text within Achieve3000 Literacy or Actively Learn, there is almost no limit to what you can do with it.

The Whole Enchilada

Thinking about the text as a whole is where many teachers focus their attention: What is the article or story about? What is the main idea? What is the tone? When we dig into details, it is often to evaluate in what ways and how successfully they support the main idea.

When we have students analyze nonfiction paragraphs, beyond how they support the main idea of the article or essay, we usually ask them to look at how the author supports and expands upon the topic sentence. What evidence do they bring to bear? How well do they explain and use that evidence?
If we wanted to give students opportunities to tinker with the text at this holistic level, what are some things we could do?

One of my favorite ways to get students to understand a text is to do what I call, “changing the givens.” Changing or removing some underlying fact, or structure of a text, can sometimes help students understand the importance of that structure or fact. Here are a few examples at this whole-text level:

  • If this text had to be 20 percent longer for some reason, what could you add to it to improve it?
  • If this text had to be 20 percent shorter for some reason, what could you take out that would not detract from its power or effectiveness?
  • If the piece has a definite viewpoint or perspective, how could you convey the same information from a radically different perspective? If it argues a particular point, how would you argue the opposite point (but make it feel like it was the same author writing it)?
  • Could you rewrite this text in a different genre, but keep the tone, main idea, and the important information intact? How would you transform this article into a story … or a one-act play … or a poem? What does the transformation tell you about the power of the genre in which the original was written?
The Paragraph

When we have students analyze non-fiction paragraphs, beyond how they support the main idea of the article or essay, we usually ask them to look at how the author supports and expands upon the topic sentence. What evidence do they bring to bear? How well do they explain and use that evidence?

Here are a few other interesting things you could have students do with paragraphs:

  • Have students rewrite the paragraph as if it were meant for a younger (or older) audience.
  • Have students rewrite the paragraph as if it were meant for an audience predisposed to disagree with the author.
  • Have students try to support or defend the topic sentence with entirely different evidence or arguments than those the author provided.

When we focus on individual words, it is often to teach students new vocabulary — words we have decided they need to know.

The Sentence

In my experience, sentences receive very little attention, especially once basic grammar is taught. We focus on paragraphs, on essays, on stories — and yet, the sentence is the real workhorse of any writing — the smallest unit of an idea. Middle and high school teachers who struggle to have students write more beautifully, or powerfully, or even cogently, often labor to mark-up entire papers, when it is really the inability to craft an excellent sentence that lies at the heart of poor writing.

The “Sentence Composing” approach, created by Donald and Jenny Killgallon, is one way to help students craft better sentences. But why not also let students tinker and play with sentences they find in articles they are reading in Achieve3000 Literacy or Actively Learn, with questions such as these?

  • What is your favorite sentence in the entire article? Why do you like it?
  • Is this a good sentence? How do you know? What makes it “good”?
  • Is it beautiful? Powerful? Why? Where does the beauty or power lie?
  • How could the sentence be improved if it is not very good? How could you improve the sentence with a single word or with a single structural change?
  • If it is a compelling sentence, what words would you change, or what structure would you reorganize to weaken its power?
  • If you wanted to state the opposite idea or make a contrasting argument, what would you write?
The Word

When we focus on individual words, it is often to teach students new vocabulary — words we have decided they need to know. We give them definitions, or we ask them to look up definitions. We may ask them to write sentences using those words. The approach is usually to take words at face value and simply know them. But if we believe that real “knowing” comes from playing and tinkering, what are some things we could ask students to do with new words they encounter?

  • What is your favorite new or unusual word in the article? Why do you like it?
  • How many different forms or versions of that word are there? How many different ways can it be used? Can you write a paragraph using EVERY form of the word?
  • How many times can you use that word in conversation from now until our next class period? Keep track!
  • Where does the word come from? Here is an online tool students can use to do that research.
  • If you look at the origins of all the words in a phrase or a sentence, how many different times and places contributed to that grouping of words?
Taking the World Out for a Spin

All these activities and exercises take time, and certainly no one is going to use all of them, all the time. But if we want students to own what they are learning — to know things deeply and completely — we need to give them opportunities to “mess about” with the content we are giving them.

Lady uses laptop
After all, when you buy a smartphone, you do not just leave it on the desk and say, “Well, there it is.” When you go shopping for a car, you do not simply look at the statistics and then hand over a credit card. You take the car out for a test drive. You put it through its paces. You see what it can do.

Our language has tremendous flexibility, beauty, and power. Getting control of it, through fluent reading and confident writing, helps students take control of their lives in innumerable ways. If we believe that this language is a gift, we should treat it like any gift we give to children, and encourage them to use it, abuse it, toss it around, bang it up a bit, and find out just what it can do.

About the Author

Andrew Ordover, Ed.D., is vice president of Product at Achieve3000, where he manages the development of the Achieve3000 Literacy and Smarty Ants reading programs. Andrew taught middle and high school English at schools in Atlanta, GA and New York City before moving into curriculum development for companies like Kaplan K12 Learning Services and Catapult Learning. He has developed professional development courses and workshops for ASCD and K12, Inc., where he led onboarding and coaching programs for a national network of online charter schools. In his spare time, Andrew writes mystery novels and contributes very sporadically to his blog on teaching and other matters, Scenes From a Broken Hand.