Wednesday, February 17, 2016

LitCharts Are Excellent Tools for Pre-Reading

At The Yellin Center, one of our favorite strategies is called “frontloading.” Useful for all students, frontloading is particularly good for those who struggle to identify the most important ideas in a lecture, lesson, or text. The principle is very simple: Students prepare themselves for learning with a preview of the lesson, concept, or reading. Examples include watching a Khan Academy video; a short introduction from an instructor; or a walk-through of a textbook chapter, focusing on the headings, captions, and images, before reading the whole thing. We find that students who frontload are more prepared to learn because they can more easily identify the most important information.

Literature can be difficult to frontload, however. Unlike textbooks, novels don’t have headings, diagrams, and images that can be previewed. Luckily, though, students who struggle with reading comprehension can prepare themselves to take on literature in a number of ways. One is to watch a movie version of the book* if one exists (keeping in mind that these versions often differ from the original book). Another is to use summaries like CliffsNotes or SparkNotes. For students who struggle with reading, though, these summaries can seem intimidating because they take the form of long blocks of text. So the original editors of SparkNotes have created a thoughtful, innovative, and free resource called LitCharts.

LitCharts provides resources for getting the most out of more than 250 plays, novels, and short stories, ranging from contemporary works like A Long Way Gone and The Fault in Our Stars to classics like Henry V and The Great Gatsby. The site (and its accompanying, free app) is interactive, so students can choose the format and content that will help them most. The “front page” for each book is called the Chart Board, which provides a visual representation of the whole book. Themes in each chapter are represented by color-coded rectangles, and by hovering over one of them the user can read a relevant, thematic summary snippet from that part of the book.

Its visual presentation is probably the best feature of LitCharts, but all of the other good stuff we’ve come to expect from literature companion sites is there, too: background information about the author and the story; a plot overview; and analysis of key characters, themes, symbols, and quotes. There is even information about how to cite LitCharts if a student references it in an essay. We also like the chart available for each book, which, once downloaded, presents key information about the author, context, and plot all in one document for easy reference.

LitCharts is not a substitute for the rich experience of reading a wonderful piece of literature, but it can help make that experience both more pleasant and more valuable to students who need support.

*Lots of parents and teachers may bristle at this idea, and we can understand why. A large part of the joy of reading is turning the pages in breathless anticipation of what will happen next. Many people feel that previewing a book in such a way “gives away” the story. For typically developing readers, we agree; we’d much rather read a book first, too! However, for students who struggle mightily with decoding, comprehension, or attention, advance knowledge of how the plot will unfold can actually help them build important reading skills.

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