How to Help All Students with Evidence-based Reading and Writing During an Inquiry Activity

In this article, I describe an instructional process to help students be successful when they read online sources in order to investigate and answer inquiry questions. The focus question used here, How can social harmony be best achieved in online spaces in Singapore?, frames a learning activity designed for the Singapore Upper Secondary Social Studies curriculum. There are four online sources for this activity. The sources represent different perspectives and solutions to achieve social harmony in online spaces in Singapore. The instructional process for this activity has six key components: 

  1. Establish a clear inquiry purpose;
  2. Introduce learning activity;
  3. Activate prior knowledge;
  4. Select engaging sources;
  5. Design learning scaffolds;
  6. Guide synthesis and writing.

Being successful with this instructional process entails source work and effective use of literacy strategies. I define source work as evaluating claims and extracting evidence from sources to answer an inquiry question. I define literacy strategies here as approaches to help students comprehend information in sources.

Reading Comprehension: Struggles, Habits, and Scaffolds

Students struggle with information sources for a range of reasons, including limited knowledge about a topic; limited knowledge about the reading and writing process; differences in background and cultural knowledge; lack of motivation; increasing challenges and demands of the curriculum as students get older; instruction not being aligned with students’ abilities and needs; speech and language development; and language differences (Conley, 2008).

But we do know a great deal about what successful readers do with information sources. These readers: know how to use existing knowledge to help understand new information; ask questions about texts before, during, and after reading; make inferences; determine what is important in a text; monitor their own comprehension and employ “fix-it” strategies when they are having difficulty understanding something; and synthesize to create new learning (Pearson, et. al, 1992). Zwiers (2010) calls these ways of thinking "reading comprehension habits” and these indicate how successful readers engage in this thinking automatically, even unconsciously. Zwiers outlines six key habits:

  1. Organizing text information by sculpting the main idea and summarizing
  2. Connecting to background knowledge
  3. Making inferences and predictions
  4. Generating and answering questions
  5. Understanding and remembering word meanings
  6. Monitoring one’s own comprehension

A key goal, then, is to help students cultivate these habits to effectively engage in source work.

Scaffolding is guidance or assistance teachers provide students to help them achieve learning goals. Scaffolds to promote careful and critical reading and the above comprehension habits include: procedural checklists with steps, explicit rules, or procedures for students to follow; process-structured questions that move students through the steps of applying a skill; graphic organizers, such as diagrams, charts, or mind maps that visually present steps or procedures to follow; and modeling, such as demonstrating step-by-step procedures or routines, differentiating and making explicit each step, displaying lists of the steps that students can use, and explaining reasons for using each step (Beyer, 2008).

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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