It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and while I’d love to think that this post may be the start of regular ones to come, I’m not going to make any promises. We’ll see how it goes.
During the first two weeks of June, I participated in the scoring of the short answer portion of the AP U.S. exam. Luckily, I was able to do this from the comfort of my favorite armchair as ETS is moving towards scoring student responses online. Being the homebody and introvert that I am, I mostly loved the convenience of this, although there were a few technical glitches on both ends. Still, I much prefer online grading with the occasional slow Internet connection to flying to Louisville and staying in a hotel with someone I don’t know.
Anyway, the powers that be assigned me the short answer wherein students must read two passages by different historians interpreting the same historical events or people or ideas, etc. This year, the students read differing interpretations of the industrial giants of the late 19th century. One historian interpreted these tycoons as robber barons and the other historian saw them as captains of industry. All in all, it was pretty straightforward. In parts (b) and (c) of the question, students had to use historical information to support the authors’ points of view, which was easy for the students who understood what the two passages were saying about the business leaders provided they had some knowledge of the period in their brains for the picking. The problem for many students, however, started before parts (b) and (c) with part (a). Here, even if students understood the passages, they had to prove this to the scorer by contrasting the two passages, explaining how the two historians’ interpretations differed. Herein lies the problem because apparently (and I include my students in this) many, many students do not know how to paraphrase.
As we practiced these kinds of short answer prompts throughout the year, I noticed that my students wanted to simply quote key words or phrases from the passages without clear explanation, leaving it up to me to infer that they truly did understand the difference between the two passages simply from the words or phrases they chose to quote. So a typical response might be along these lines: Historian Joe Smith says industrial giants were “X” and “Y,” while historian Jane Smith says the industrial giants were “A” and “B.” That’s it. That’s all they would write. They would often then go on to provide excellent responses to (b) and (c), illustrating to me that they did indeed understand the differences between the two interpretations. The fact remained, however, that they had not actually explained the differences in the two passages as required in part (a); instead, they’d strategically quoted hoping I’d meet them halfway, I guess.
So of course, my response to this was to disallow my students to quote from the documents and to require them to write a response “in your own words.” Classic teacher response, I imagine. And this helped…some of the time. Still, the problem remained, and the problem seemed to be one for both my strongest and weakest students alike. They could intuit the basic meaning of the two passages given the context and given the topic, but they struggled to fully explain the major differences in their own words.
After reading nearly 1,500 student responses over the course of 5 days, I can now safely say this is not a problem for just my students. Explaining or paraphrasing what they have read appears to be a problem across the board even for those students who comprehend what they have read. I think that last part is the most important part for me. We tend to think that if a student understands what they have read they will be able to put the main ideas into their own words; if they can’t do this, then they must not have understood or not understood enough. But this is not what I’ve found with my own students, and it’s not what my experience with the AP Reading suggests. Plenty of students were able to get credit for parts (b) and (c) but not (a). This should tell us something. The deficiency in part seems to be the result of a weak vocabulary. The students have no words.
Earlier this year I worked with a committee at my school dealing with vocabulary development, and one of the English teachers on the committee confirmed this very thing. She related how when she helps students write papers the main problem is one of vocabulary. They have to write a given amount, but because they’ve already used all the words they know by the end of page 2, they struggle to write enough or provide enough explanation. They end up with highly repetitive papers with little explanation, and at the heart of the matter, according to this teacher, is the fact that the students have no words with which to write.
I really do not know what the answer is to this problem, but I suspect the truest answer is both the simplest and the most difficult: more reading and more writing. In the meantime, while I try to work in more of these two staples, I am going to go one step further this year. When we practice these kinds of short answer prompts this year, not only will I require students to write in their own words, but to make sure they do so, I will be underlining all the key words in the passages that they absolutely may not use in their response. In theory, this will force their hand and make them dig deep for synonyms. Hopefully, they will finally find the words.