Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Visualize Collaborative Text Analysis With Prism

"These kids don't even know how to read. I have to teach them that, too?" I hear this every year from high school history teachers. The answer is simple. Yes, we have to continue to exercise critical reading skills, and a great place to start is with main ideas.

Finding the main idea is often a good candidate for the highlighter, and I wondered if there was a way to do this collaboratively. Sure, students can do this with Google Docs, but my curiosity led me to a tool called Prism.

Prism is powerful tool with a simple design. It's geared for collaboration and serves fundamental needs for literacy development.


The task is to analyze a text by using different color highlighters that correlate to predetermined facets. As learners highlight the text, the font changes color. The final visualization of the text shows color differences and size differences – highlighted words with a higher frequency are larger.

I love simple tools, especially ones that are intuitive to use, like Prism. Here are some of the benefits.

1. Finding Main Ideas

Learners at all levels need to practice finding main ideas in texts that push their reading level. By seeing what peers are reporting as main ideas, it's can be easier to make the correction on one's own rather than by the pen of a teacher.

After a discussion about the largest frequency highlighted words, next steps could include focusing on the most frequent words to write a summary of the text. This is an easy assignment to differentiate, too.
  • Lower levels can illustrate the main ideas and use the words to label the illustration. 
  • Middle levels can write one-sentence summaries. 
  • The higher levels can write a three- to five-sentence paragraph and include relevant inferences beyond the text. 
2. Grouping and Labeling

The highlighter colors and labels are typically determined before the text analysis, but that doesn't mean students need to be left out.

Instruct students to skim the text to determine the themes that should be used for a closer analysis. This teaches students critical reading strategies need continual reinforcement throughout their secondary years.

Categorizing and naming the categories helps learners organize information to unpack in an essay, for example. Other applications of categorizing include writing efficient emails and agendas, skills that are invaluable in our fast-paced connected workforce.  

3. Working With ELLs

Students with limited English proficiency need extra practice finding main ideas. Sometimes the main ideas are all they can hope to extract from a text, depending on the level.

Another of Prism include searching for key vocabulary. With so many different levels of proficiency in a class, the visualization of the trouble words helps prioritize the us of class time.

Lastly, ELLs need to feel confident. They are dealing with so many different struggles that require confidence to proceed. Anytime learners can see the responses of their peers, they often feel less alone and more confident.

4. Making Thinking Visible

This is probably the most important approach to learning that any classroom could provide. Using digital technology to bring together and visualize the thinking of the room allows learners to benefit from all peers at once.

The sample text below was often an important text that left my students' memories as quickly as it arrived. By visualizing the analysis, my students could see their decisions and compare their work to that of their peers.

5. Collaboration 

This is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education. These days, everything is about collaboration because working with others to make something is engaging.

My favorite observation while using Prism was how easily students provided their reasoning for the different results. The debrief on a Prism activity is far more enjoyable than a typical paper-based (or PDF) text analysis (yawn).

6. Student Voice

When the lesson content is focused on contributions from students, they are engaged because they had a say in what the class is doing, even if it is analyzing one part of a text or another.

We're not there, yet, but I'd like to have my students make suggestions for text analysis. This would be the student-centered activity design. A good way to work toward such a goal would be to involve students in the process of determining what to label the highlighter colors (as described in number 2 of this list).

7. Self-Evaluation

 As we look at the Prism results, questions as to why certain words are larger than others begin to guide our discussion. Along with these questions, students are also asking themselves how the group results relate to their own. In other words, they are questioning how helpful their contributions were to the group.

Speech Analysis Example

The following activity includes an excerpt from Otto von Bismarck's "Blood and Iron" speech. The highlight labels are "nationalism" and "militarism."

The most commonly highlighted words were ...
  • Nationalism: "... healthy life of the state." (second image)
  • Militarism: "... gather its forces ..." and " ... blood and iron." (third image)