Society & Culture & Entertainment Education

Debates Create Active Readers



“Ok, I want you to read this article about whether the United States should have dropped the atomic bomb to end WWII,” the teacher told the students as he passed out the papers, “Now, be sure to be active readers and mark up the text.”

The students picked up the article; some held pencils in hand.

A few scribbled notes on the page; two students doodled.

They were not active readers.

They paused when they finished reading.

They looked up waiting for instructions.

“Now, I want you to pair up for a debate,” he announced  “and two of you will be argue the ‘Yes’ side against another two who will debate the ‘No’ argument. You might want to quickly re-read the article based on your position,” he added.

Immediately, the students began to re-read the article, taking take notes on their papers.

The room was cognitively busy, the students had been transformed into active readers.

What had been the reason for the difference between the passive first reading and the active re-read?

In giving students a reason for reading, to prepare for a debate, the teacher had defined the purpose.

The word purpose is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, purpose means “the reason why something is done or used : the aim or intention of something”; as a verb purpose means “have as one's intention or objective.”

Active reading requires both meanings.

Once the students had purpose, the sounds of restlessness during the first read were replaced by the sounds of pencil scratchings as students reviewed the text seeking an edge to use in the debate.

Because the teacher had explained to the the students that they should prepare to challenge each other, they had the lens of debate as a purpose to read and that lens that required active engagement.

When students know why they are reading a text, they can employ critical thinking strategies.  Just as they needed a purpose to read, they need to determine the reason an author writes a text. Students first need to consider that (generally) authors write:
  • to inform or explain;
  • to entertain;
  • to persuade;
  • to reveal a truth.

As they read, however, students should be aware that an author’s purpose for writing can be a blend of these reasons. For example, an author may want to persuade a reader and to provide important information, as these students noticed.

The first debates that began around the around the room were polite and quiet.

More than 55,000 Americans had already died fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. An invasion was certain to be very costly in American lives,” quoted one student. He was using statistical facts in order to persuade his opponent.

That same tactic of citing information was used in the counter argument when another student explained, “Because of logistics, an invasion of Japan could not begin for another three months, so the U.S. could have waited to see if Japan would surrender before dropping the atomic bombs.”

In making their arguments during the debates, students restated each author’s purpose and mimicked each author’s technique.

Once they understood the purpose for reading, the students could use the text to make and to defend a claim, which is one of the key shifts in the Common Core State Standards.

The students became more agitated and forceful as the debates went on for several minutes.

Then the teacher announced, “Now, I want you to switch sides. If you were a ‘Yes’ earlier, you are now are now going to argue for the  ‘No’ position."

Furiously, the students dove back into the article’s text to build a new and opposite argument to debate. They were actively re-reading again as they were re-reading with a purpose.

That was the teacher’s purpose as well.

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