Unlocking learning: You need more
than key words.
This article was published in
Good Teacher, Term 3 1999
Ask the average primary child whether one key unlocks everything at home and they’ll soon work out that the answer is no. Mum, or whoever, has house keys, car keys, these keys, those keys. The point is that, without the right key, the lock remains locked.
In our schools the term key words is used like an all-purpose key, expected to unlock meaning, wherever and whatever.
Frances Salt of ERO has recently been quoted as saying that, despite New Zealand’s fine reading programmes, many students have difficulty reading for information. Before succumbing to the usual defensive damnation of ERO and all who sail in her, consider for one minute that she may be right. I think she is.
Reading to learn
Learning to read is done by design; reading to learn is all too often done by default.
What I call ‘the KEYS’ play a significant role in reading to learn, in finding and using information, in developing the information skills highlighted by the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP). The keys are key concepts, key search words and key questions. All three work together, in combination, to unlock sources of information for learning.
If you ask most student to define key words they’ll tell you that the key words are important words.
Ask a child to pick out one key word in this sentence: The labrador is a big dog. Many children will say ‘big’. If you are reading for meaning, it may well be significant that the dog is big, especially it it is BIG and chasing you and slavering! If you are reading for information, for learning, words like dogs, breeds, puppy, canine, whelp, miniature, toy, etc, are more use than descriptors like big, little, fierce, barking, slavering, gentle.
It is quite simple. The key to unlock information in texts (print and electronic) is more helpfully described to students as key SEARCH words rather than important words.
Key search words are the words (nouns, not adjectives or adverbs or
descriptors) used to search for information, to scan and skim
the information, and to strip out what you need to build knowledge.
Key search words provide a mental map of the information territory to
help you navigate your way.
But, if it is so simple:
Q: Why do so many children have difficulty
A: Because, without key concepts,
it is hard to work out what to find out. How do you know what
you’re looking for if you don’t know what’s important?
Q: Why do so many children have difficulty
A: Because questions need to be grounded
in key aspects of the topic, or key concepts - why exactly
are we ‘doing’ dogs; what’s important about dogs that we need
Q: Even when children have key questions,
why do so many fail to recognise that the information is there.
They just need to LOOK for it; why do they expect the answer to
leap out of the page or the screen without any mental effort on
A: Unless key concepts and key
search words are embedded into key questions and used
consciously to scan and skim for the information like a detective
looking for clues, students have difficulty making links between
text and questions. Key words and key concepts are
the missing links.
Q: It’s ten times worse with Encarta and
the Internet. Students just download information indiscriminately,
even if they started with questions.
A: If the teacher does not model and monitor
the development and use of the keys, students tend to look for
anything that looks even vaguely relevant to their topic, and
copy, photocopy or download it without doing any mental processing.
Without encouragement they seldom look at more than one source
of information, and seldom look at that one source more than superficially.
Ready access to printers has made ‘Write it in your own words’
seem like a churlish request.
Q: Why, despite the fact that we’ve ‘done’
notetaking year after year, do so many students struggle to make
simple, clear and coherent notes, and continue to operate on a
policy of ‘more must be better’ ?
A: If you haven’t got key questions you won’t
be looking/ listening for anything in particular.If you haven’t
got key words embedded in your key questions, there’s
nothing to jump out at you to hit you in the eyeball, focus your
reading/ listening. And, if you haven’t worked through all the
key concepts (why this topic is important to learn about), it
will all seem equally important... So how do you know what’s important
enough to write down? You might as well try to get it all down
and decide what you need later?
Teaching the conventions of note taking (margins, punctuations, tabulation, highlighting, room for summaries, drawing mindmaps, diagrams, etc) without teaching the keys is like building a house without foundations.
Notemaking grows out of a conceptual understanding of what facts, figures, ideas are central to that topic and why it is being studied. This conceptual understanding is iterative. As you read more, make notes on it, and think more, your initial key concepts, key search words, and key questions are enriched and expanded. Understanding builds knowledge. Knowledge builds understanding.
In a talk at the recent TUANZ Conference I suggested that we were children how to use computers but paying dangerously little attention to their cognitive software - teaching them how to learn with and without computers.
Someone commented afterwards that I’d made some good points, but what a pity it was that I didn’t cover some of the strategies I’d said were essential. It drove home to me how people take competence in learning for granted. People understand the need to spend TIME and money learning to use computers. yet learning strategies can bee cooked up in five minutes like instant noodles?
The notion that using key words, key concepts and key questions in combination as a fundamental strategy for scanning, skimming, reading and interpreting text critically and analytically sounds simple and sounds like common sense?
Strategies are a bit like habits, though. Good habits take time and a lot of practice before they become habitual. Good strategies take time and a lot of practice before they are used automatically, strategically and flexibly to support a variety of learning approaches.
I am delighted that the NEMP tasks have provided a focus for these skills that are so obvious that their importance to learners tends to be diminished. maybe students need a Skills recovery programme to ‘recover’ them from not having what they never had the opportunity to learn in the first place?