Highlighting for Understanding of Complex Text

Published in The National Teaching and Learning Forum. 2005 14(6): 1-4.

Highlighting for Understanding of Complex Text

Judy Willis, M.D, M.Ed.
Teacher: Santa Barbara Middle School

Most teachers enjoy challenging their students and extending students’ critical thinking skills. Few joys compare with seeing a student grasp the big picture, connect and relate previous learning to something new, and discover the satisfaction of an “Ah-ha” moment. However, with larger classes and more material to cover in less time, it’s not always possible to engage in Socratic methods with empirical or inductive dialogue to bring students up to their potential as high level thinkers. But brain-based research and colored marker pens can help teachers provide the necessary scaffolding and guide their students with to develop their powers of interpretation, analysis, and abstraction.

Many students are limited in their prior experience in higher cognitive analysis of complex written text. They have either been taught to the standardized test or are products of the digital-audio-visual era with its emphasis on immediate gratification without encouraging critical feedback. Sheridan Blau teaches in the departments of English and education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also directs the South Coast Writing Project. His believes that, “Over-instruction or giving predigested interpretations to students results in a limited conception of what competent readers go through to produce meanings from what they read. Most student readers function largely as welfare recipients in the economy of literary and other academic interpretation and instruction. We want to give students the experience of successfully interpreting difficult text, and liberate students from interpretive welfare. The goal is to build in students a greater tolerance for difficulty or failure. Confusion represents a high state of understanding. The act of interpretation doesn’t occur in reading unless you feel something is wrong – something makes you uncomfortable. From there you seek and reach a new perspective and the richest parts of the understanding and connection with the material.”

As part of the South Coast Writing Project, Blau demonstrated a teaching technique to the fellows in the writing project that I have subsequently applied to help students connect with and critically interpret not only literature, but also information in philosophy, psychology, and history texts.
Blau’s comprehension of text strategy reflect the way competent readers move haltingly and recursively toward the satisfactory interpretation of difficult text without “interpretive welfare.” To demonstrate the strategy, Blau gave the member of the workshop copies of a challenging, obscure poem that not a single member claimed to fully interpret after a single reading. He next directed participants to use
three different transparent colored markers, read the poem three more times, and each time underline any text we didn’t understand. In his instructions, he noted that strong readers pay more attention to what they don’t know because they think that what they notice, but don’t quite understand, is worth pondering.

Not surprisingly, the participants discovered that they understood more of the poem each time they read it. The process of underlining focused attention on the phrases they would have skipped as “too hard.” They persevered because they were obliged in color to return to these lines. They found themselves enjoying the “feel” of the markers, the positive reinforcement of each insight, and the discovery that solving one piece of the puzzle helped them when they returned to earlier points of confusion. The exercise went beyond simple reading and rereading, because there was the active, visually enhanced process of increased time spent with the complex lines by virtue of slowing down to highlight them. In addition, looking at the decreasing amount of text underlined with each color was encouraging and built confidence.

That experience provided a set of self-management skills —concentration, persistence, and courage— in the face of intellectual difficulties. By extrapolation I have used the colored pen technique to light the way for students to reach higher levels of thinking, abstraction, and conceptualization regarding the material they read in other subjects where interpretation is important.
As one would expect, the scaffolding afforded by the colored markers eventually becomes unnecessary, because as students become adept at the process, they are simultaneously developing their higher levels of thinking, abstraction, and conceptualization. They discover that they can achieve the same degree of understanding by focused rereading. The end result is that they learn the material they need, but not because it is processed through superficial rote memory from notes or lectures that predigest the material, but rather through their own relational and conceptual thinking utilizing their higher-level executive function skills.

What’s Happening in the Brain That Moves the Hand That Controls The Marker?
Perhaps what may sound like a “gimmick” m may garner the appropriate respect and attention from skeptical readers when they understand the science behind how this technique is promoting learning. Behind the colored markers, the technique works like this:
Executive functions, centered in the orbito-frontal portion of the frontal lobes, include higher reasoning, abstraction, synthesizing, critical analysis, comparison/contrast, and judgment. As brain research has found, this processing results in the learned material becoming part of long-term memory available for retrieval and subsequent critical thinking connections far beyond the classroom.

The brain is divided into lobes, each with many functions, each interconnecting to the other lobes through nerve pathways or circuits. Areas in the frontal and temporal lobes are integral in executive attention – alerting the rest of the brain to pay attention or respond to stimuli. In learning, the stimuli are the bits of sensory information students see (through their eyes or by internal visualization after reading text), hear, feel, smell, touch, or experience through movement.
There are even more specialized brain regions that have been revealed through neuro-imaging and brain mapping while subjects are in the process of moving information from sensory data to these centers of executive function. When new information is actively learned and stored, the first areas activated (lit up by increased metabolism seen on PET or fMRI scans) are the somatosensory cortex areas, one in each brain lobe, where input from each individual sense (hearing, touch, taste, vision, smell) is received and then classified or identified by matching it with previously stored similar data.

Next in the sequence of memory storage is the limbic system, comprised of parts of the temporal lobe, hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex (front part of the frontal lobe). Studies of the electrical activity (EEG or brain waves) and metabolic activity (from specialized brain scans) show the synchronization of brain activity as information passes from the somatosensory cortex sensory processing areas to the limbic system. For example, bursts of brain activity from the somatosensory cortex are followed milliseconds later by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus and then other parts of the limbic system before being passed along to the executive function centers. This is the one of the most exciting areas of brain-based memory research because it offers educators a view of the brain while it is processing new information. This provides empirical evidence with which to evaluate the techniques and strategies that stimulate and those that impede communication between the parts of the brain when information is processed and stored.

Engaging in the process of learning actually increases one’s capacity to learn. Each time a student participates in an academic endeavor, a certain number of neurons are activated. When the action is repeated, such with a new color marker during each rereading, these same neurons respond again. The more times one repeats an action the more connections are made from the new memories to previous related knowledge. If previously stored, related memories can be activated, or brought back on line, they travel back to the hippocampus and nearby regions of the temporal lobe where they are connected to the new information. The brain then makes the conscious connection between these stored memories and the new information.

When students process information through multiple sensory intake centers in their brains (visual reading, auditory reading out loud or with a partner, color stimulation of the highlighting, and the positive emotional connections to past “coloring” activities when coloring meant childhood fun, the information to be learned is connected to multiple senses and positive emotions. This excites more of the brain, increasing stimulation of executive function centers.
Part of this process is due to the brain’s plasticity. When new information is input using several sensory systems, the brain’s plasticity builds additional dendrites to form more networks of information communication. For example, offering the information visually will set up a dendrite/neuron connection with the occipital lobes, the posterior lobes of the brain that processes visual input. Subsequently or simultaneously presenting the same material by sound will build an auditory dendritic circuit with the temporal lobes. The temporal lobes process sound and play an important role in the regulation of emotion and memory processing because they are part of the limbic system. This duplication of pathways results in greater opportunity for future cues to prompt the brain to recall related stored information and make connections and higher-level interpretations.

A “Colored” Brain
As the highlighting lesson progresses, students feel more capable of doing higher order thinking independently. When students have the opportunity to actively think for themselves, they become self-learners, not just Blau’s welfare information recipients. The person who does the work (thinks) is the one who learns. When students are ready to respond in class discussion, open-ended questions with multiple possible responses encourage more students to be the thinkers. When some students do begin to respond with what they believe are factual answers or correct assumptions, asking them to explain their thinking and give evidence for their ideas allows others to actively listen and clarify their own interpretations.

A student must care enough about new information or consider it important, for it to go through the limbic system, form new synaptic connections, and be processed in executive function centers of the frontal lobe. Having students relate new information in the engaging process of highlighting personalizes it and increases its importance to them. This process has the built-in positive emotional experience of the “play” of coloring and the success that results from feelings of accomplishment, pleasant social interactions with classmates or teacher, or specific acknowledgement and praise. This emotional connection is particularly applicable during early college years when the influences of emotions and hormones are greatest, making this a particularly significant time for teachers to use strategies that make the most of the heightened emotional state of students.

Color Me Dopamine
The chemical neurotransmitter that appears to most impact the activity state of the limbic, attention, and executive function systems is dopamine. Dopamine has long been associated with attention and attention disorders in the frontal lobes. Dopamine carries information across synapses in the networks and circuits involved in decision-making and executive control. In the frontal lobes and the amygdala, there is an optimal stimulation state where brain stimulation and activity is enhanced with some types of reward-dependent learning. This is reflected in neuroimaging that measures dopamine levels in these brain regions.

Research evidence indicates that when reward or positive reinforcement is part of a lesson, dopamine activity increases in these brain regions to the point that there is an opening of the gates and passages through the limbic system to the executive function control centers. Dopamine responsive brain cells in the amygdala and elsewhere in the limbic system may be where the brain “makes predictions” about possible rewards by releasing the dopamine in response to cues that rewards are possible. The dopamine then activates the neural pathways to prompt the behavior to achieve the rewards it predicts. This research, and an even newer area of brain research related to mirror neurons (which play a part in learning language and linguistic interpretation) suggest that the pleasure and achievement-based rewards of this highlighting color process can change the way students will relate to challenging text in the future.

Metacognition, knowledge about one’s own thoughts and the facts that influence one’s thinking and learning can optimize future learning. With all the information neuroimaging and brain mapping has yielded about the acquisition of information, some of the best strategies are still those that students recognize themselves. Research has demonstrated that optimal learners knowingly practice distinct learning behaviors that they have acknowledged as successful for them. After a lesson with the colored highlighters, it is beneficial for students to recognize a breakthrough success in the learning processing that they experienced that day, and consider what they did right.

The Future
When executive function brain research is applied to the classroom it not only drives the learning process, but also allows instructors and professors to energize and enliven the minds of more students. As the research continues to build, it will challenge educators to develop and utilize new strategies that bring the insights gleaned from brain-based research to their interactions with students, their pedagogical practice. That will be a fascinating and exciting challenge to meet.

I have seen the work students have produced after they leave my highlighting class and am confident that a set of markers helped them brighten the executive thinking portions of their brains. Demonstrating this technique with students has helped them sharpen their critical thinking and capacity for abstraction so these skills. It sounds almost naïve to assert that a few colored markers can help prevent important learning skills from being extinguished by frustration and negative experiences with a challenging text, but I’ve found that they have. I urge you to try this approach to surmounting difficult texts with your students.

Sheridan Blau’s presentation was entitled “Disciplined Literacy” and the complete description of his lesson can be found in his book:
Sheridan Blau, The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers, Heinemann, 2003.

© 2007 Willis