Focusing on Literacy Skills: Determining Importance

The first Literacy Skill that students need is Determining Importance. This one skill will prepare them for everything that follows. Without it, they will be unable to focus their thoughts and ideas. We have to teach students to identify key details. We need to teach students how to identify the main idea, and how to identify supporting details.

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You’re in a crowded city trying to find your friend. You hear cars honking, people chatting with each other, babies crying, that one stroller wheel that never seems to stop squeaking, and construction vehicles creating a new high rise.

Somewhere in that cacophony you hear your voice. It’s your friend. You’ve met up with each other. Success! But how did you do that? You were able to Determine Importance.

Despite all the sounds you were able to pick out the specific details that were relevant to you. You did this by approaching the situation with an end-goal in mind. You were Listening for Meaning.

Now, how do we apply this knowledge to our students?

Determining Importance in the Classroom

Be it an English class, where students need to determine the reason for a character’s choices, a history class where they need to find the most important event in a decade, or a science classroom where students must consider the key details that are relevant for their area of focus, students need to be able to determine importance.

Consider the following paragraph about insulin:

“For many years scientists believed that some kind of internal secretion of the pancreas was the key to preventing diabetes and controlling normal metabolism. No one could find it, until in the summer of 1921 a team at the University of Toronto began trying a new experimental approach suggested by Dr. Frederick Banting. By the spring of 1922, the Toronto researchers — Banting, Charles Best, J.B. Collip and their supervisor, J.J.R. Macleod, were able to announce the discovery of insulin. In 1923, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize for one of the most important, and most controversial, breakthroughs in modern medical history.”

There is a lot of information contained within that paragraph. There are names, dates, important bits of information, and details that can easily be ignored. As you read through it you probably took away the following pieces:

  • Dr. Banting suggested a new approach
  • In 1922 the discovery of insulin was announced
  • The discovery occured in Toronto
  • Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize

But here’s the thing… what led you to remember those pieces of information? Was there some innate force at work that led you to those details? Was there some natural piece that allows everyone to cut through the noise to find the substance?

As educators we know the answer to that: no. There is no natural ability to determine what is important. It is a skill that is taught, and that relies on our prior knowledge and experiences.

Teaching Determining Importance

There are a number of things you can do to help your students prepare to identify main and supporting details in their texts. Each skill must be explicitly taught whether the student is in grade 2, or grade 12. As students make their way through the education system they develop their skills, but the skills must still be reinforced through explicit teaching and the direct naming of the skill. Most importantly, students must be offered opportunities to practice their skills in safe environments time and time again.

Creating a Safe Environment

The most important part of creating a safe environment is ensuring students know they will not be penalized for any mistakes they make. By presenting students with opportunities that offer formative, rather than summative, descriptive feedback they will become confident in their abilities, and grow as a direct result.

Imagine if you were told your first time wearing skis that the black diamond slope would determine how you are perceived as a skier for the rest of the year. Not only would you think it unfair, you’d become stressed and that would lead you to performing even worse than if you knew nothing at all.

Creating Opportunities

Once you have decided that students will be presented with safe spaces, they will need to be granted the opportunity to practice. The following text on the Canadian Inuit Sled Dog massacre will be used as an example:

The Canadian government has apologized for the killings of thousands of sled dogs decades ago. [Th]he government made a mistake by assuming it knew what was best for Inuit people.

Between 1950 and 1975, Inuit in Nunuvut’s Baffin region were moved from mobile camps to permanent communities. Sled dogs proved a hazard in the communities and the government required owners to muzzle and chain the animals. An inquiry report in 2010 found that it became easier for authorities to shoot the dogs instead of enforcing the ordinances…

“We are committed to ensuring our future is different from our past. We apologize to Qikiqtani Inuit for the deep and lasting effects this has had in their lives and in their communities.”

First Steps

The first time you present students with this piece of writing, ask them to record five key details from the piece. After an appropriate amount of time has passed, ask them to partner with their elbow partners, or walk around the room, to find other people that have the same – or similar – points.

Each time a student finds something similar to another student’s point, they should place a check mark next to it. Once enough time has passed, have students write the top three checkmarked points on the board.

You should find some of the following:

  • The government apologized for killing thousands of sled dogs
  • The dogs were killed between 1950 and 1975
  • In 2010 it was discovered that police had killed the dogs
  • The Qikiqtani Inuit were deeply injured through this practice

Students will recognize these as key points because they are shared by multiple people in the classroom. However, even though they were able to identify them, they may not know why they selected them. That’s the next step.

Debriefing the Key Points

Once students have come up with key points it’s important to look for commonalities between them. Is there something that makes them stand out over the other details and information?

Indeed there is.

  • The Main Idea is almost always stated right away.
    • In this case, the reason for the government’s apology is the first thing mentioned
  • Supporting details often include numbers
    • Any time a student sees a date (i.e. 1975) or a percentage (i.e. 23) or a numerical fact (154 people) they can be sure that that detail is there to support the main idea
  • Supporting details often include proper nouns
    • A capitalized noun, like a name, is most likely giving the reader a specific detail to help them understand or plan future research

Now that students know what they’re looking for, and how to look for it, they should be presented with another text, and asked to determine the main idea and three supporting details.

Once students have practiced this two or three times, it is fair to evaluate their ability, so long as they are given the opportunity to improve their mark later, as their ability increases.

The Metacognitive Component

Metacognition is a powerful tool that, once taught, can dramatically increase student success. Most educators have a well developed metacognitive ability: it’s the voice in your head that forces you to pause, re-read, and ask questions are you process information.

But, metacognition isn’t natural or inherent. It must be taught, practiced and continuously used.

Metacognitive Questions

When practicing Determining Importance students should be tasked to ask themselves one or more the following questions each time they come across something they think is a key detail:

  1. What makes me think this is a key detail?
  2. What specific piece of information is being communicated here?
  3. What makes this bit stand out from the rest?
  4. How do the numbers or proper nouns connect to the main idea?

Once students have experience developing their metacognition, they will ask these questions on their own, the same way their teachers do. However, until it becomes a part of their reading process, they should be directed to ask these questions of themselves.

Presenting opportunities for students and teachers to ask and answer these questions aloud demonstrates the importance of the process, as well as showing how strong readers approach texts.

Next Steps

Once students have developed the ability to Determine Importance they will be ready to learn and practice the next important literacy skill: Summarizing.

Parsing a text for the main idea and supporting details is important, and summarizing gives the students a opportunity to work with those details and turn their bullet points into something far more powerful.

Focus on Literacy Skills

  • Determining Importance

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