Categorizing Information to Remember More

As we move into our in-depth study of informational text, it has become more and more clear that many of my students struggle remembering what they have read.

This, of course, creates many problems for them as learners!  As I dug a little deeper, I began to realize that some of my students were able to hang on to a few random details from texts they read…but these details were often unrelated and sometimes not even relevant.  How would we be able to tackle our complicated lessons on chronological order and cause/effect if they didn’t seem to really have a purpose for their reading?
The more I talked with my students, the more I realized how they did not naturally sense how texts are organized…and although our unit was about to dig into different text structures, I felt like there was something more basic that was missing.  I read a lesson that was geared toward an entirely different learning target, and a light bulb went off–I began thinking about how many students just go through the motions of reading without thinking…and certainly don’t always tackle reading with a purpose.

So here’s what I did.

I built a tray full of random objects.  (Well…not that random–more later)
I told the students I had something specific I wanted them to learn and remember–but I didn’t have a lot of time for them to learn it.  I left the room, got the tray, and then walked around the room with it showing each desk group for about 30 seconds.  I then took the tray back out.
The kids looked at me like I was crazy, and I started talking to them about what we were going to be working on that day, made small talk, and so on.  After a few minutes I asked them to get out a sheet of paper and to write down what they learned was on the tray.  They looked blankly at me–so I reminded them that their JOB was to LEARN what I showed them.  I gave them a few minutes to write their answers down.  We then shared out to see how many items they could remember.  Despite having more than 20 items on the tray, no one could remember more than 6.
So we talked about what items they remembered and did something thinking about why.  Someone remembered the jar of frosting because they LOVE frosting…someone remembered the lion because it was big.  Another student remembered the flavored water because it was her favorite flavor.  Interesting, right?  We talked about how we remember things better that stand out to us for certain reasons…we have seen them before.  We like them or are interested in them.
So then I asked them about what they could do if they needed to really remember lots of things–even things that are either new or not that interesting.  No one had any reasonable ideas.
I brought up the lion.  I asked the students if there were any other objects on the tray that were RELATED to or SIMILAR to the lion.  A few students remembered the bean bag frog so I asked what “category” the lion and frog would be in and we agreed “animals” or “toys”.  I asked if there were any other items that fit into that category and no one could remember.  I asked if anyone remembered seeing the stapler on the tray and a few did.  At that point someone called out, “Hey–there were other school supplies–I remember a glue stick!”  Victory.
We then talked about how looking at something with a purpose…where you try to make connections and think about how facts work together.  I then brought out the tray and asked them to try to learn the tray again by making connections and keeping the items in categories.
It will be no surprise to you that the retention of information skyrocketed.  So what learning point did I make?  Authors do this ALL THE TIME.  They make decisions about what information to put together and how to organize their texts so that it is easier for readers to understand–but that it’s the reader’s job to really think hard about the choices the author made so they can keep the information organized in their brains.  I challenged them to “think like an author” when reading informational texts so that they have a better chance of remembering all the great information.  I even fessed up that I deliberately placed items on the tray based on categories…school supplies, toys, things to eat/drink, and so on.  They were shocked that I had done it on purpose!
Think we’re ready to learn about different text structures now?  I hope so!