Unraveling the Process of Meaning Making

Last week in “Seeing the Forest Through the Trees,” I attempted to set the strategies and skills we need to teach our students and the assessment we design to monitor their growth within the context of a larger enduring understanding. And to help with that, I shared the process of meaning making I explore in depth in What Readers Really Do, which breaks down the thinking work of reading into three distinct but related modes: comprehension, understanding and evaluation.

I defined each term in that post. But to demonstrate what I mean and hopefully provide a clearer, more concrete sense of each, let’s look at an excerpt from one of my all-time favorite books for teaching both reading and writing, Hey World, Here I Am! It’s ostensibly the notebook of a feisty but sensitive middle school girl named Kate Bloomfield, written by Jean Little with illustrations by Sue Truesdell, and it comprises short vignettes and prose poems like this:

If we define comprehension as the literal and inferential meaning a reader makes on a line-by-line or page-by-page basis, we can see that this piece doesn’t put a lot of demands on readers at the literal level, as Jean Little tells us explicitly how each character peels an orange.

At the inferential level, however, things get a little trickier. The details seem to suggest something about each character that is only accessible through inferring: that Kate may be a neat person more generally and Emily an impulsive one as shown through the way each handles an orange. We might also infer that Emily admires Kate from her exclamatory comment. But what are we to do with the last line? Why would Kate say what she does? Does it mean that she wants to be admired or be better at something than Emily? Does she wish she wasn’t such a perfectionist? Does she idolize Emily, no matter what she does? What, oh what, does it mean?

As readers entertain these questions, they move from comprehension to the realm of understanding—that is, from the surface level of the text to those deeper layers where ideas and themes reside. And they make that move, unconsciously or not, because they’re aware that this piece is about more than just oranges. Jean Little is revealing something here about each girl and their relationship to each other and perhaps even something more universal about the idea or theme of friendship.

To understand that, we’d have to take what we comprehended in this section and connect it to other pages and sections, holding all those questions in our heads and reading closely to see if we noticed any patterns in the way the girls interacted. Are there other times, for instance, when the two girls compete? Are they opposites in more ways than peeling oranges? Is their admiration mutual or lopsided? Do the seemingly neat and impulsive streaks that we’ve noticed here reappear? And if so, do they impact the two girls’ friendship in any way?

In this way, readers fit parts of a text together, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, in order to ‘see’ something they couldn’t in any single piece. Based on what patterns they noticed and how they fit them together, readers would draft an understanding (which we also can call an interpretation) of what they think Jean Little might be trying to say about Kate and Emily’s friendship, which, in turn, says something about friendship in general.

This kind of thinking seems too different from the work of comprehending a single line or page to use the same word to describe it, which is why it seems helpful for both students and teachers to name them as separate but connected modes of thinking. And while experienced readers and even some students engage in the work of understanding automatically, many need our help in making it visible in order to partake in it, too, with instruction provided that encourages students to be on the look-out for patterns and to make connections within the text in order to interpret.

Additionally, many readers need to have the last step in the process made visible as well. For once readers have constructed an understanding of what they think the author is saying across the whole text, not just on one page, they consider whether that understanding holds any real weight for them in their lives. Does it affirm, expand, inform, refute or challenge what they already know about friendship? Is it something they want to hold on to and remember? Is it something they want to discard or disagree with, which is every reader’s right?

Dorothy and I call this part of the process evaluation, and I believe it’s as vital for readers to engage in as comprehension and understanding because it’s in the act of evaluating that we truly take stock of what reading gives us. We draft and revise our understanding of a text as we fit the pieces we notice together. Then we take what we have come to understand to draft and revise our understanding of ourselves as we fit the text into our lives. As Kate of the perfectly peeled oranges says to her guidance counselor near the end of Hey World, Here I Am!:

I’m putting myself together, Miss McIntyre. But it is like a jigsaw puzzle. I keep on finding new pieces.

Reading helps us put ourselves together by offering us new takes on the world and the human condition. But this can only happen if we acknowledge that purpose and have both an instructional framework and a vision of reading that explicitly supports it.  Breaking the complicated process of meaning-making into these three components helps. It also allows us, as teachers, to assess how much time and instruction we really spend on each part of the process—and to try to redress any imbalance as we continue to plan and move forward, tying whatever strategies we offer to these more meaning-full strategic ends.

Comprehension + Understanding + Evaluation = Meaning

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: Reflecting on the Big Picture

New Years always prompts me to reflect as I look both backwards at the year just finished and forward to the one gearing up. And this year, with so many new terms in the air, like performance-based tasks and complexity bands, and more assessments than ever before, I’ve been feeling a need to set all those terms and assessments into the context of a bigger, more meaningful picture—what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of the great backwards planning book Understanding by Design, might call an ‘enduring understanding’.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, an enduring understanding is an idea or concept that offers lasting value throughout life, not just in the classroom. Additionally, it should reside at the heart of the discipline, require uncovering or unpacking through inquiry, and be engaging to students. Enduring understandings abound on the internet, with a quick search on google yielding ELA samples like this: “Reading is a process by which we construct meaning about the information being communicated by an author within a print or non-print medium,” and “Language captures and records human aspirations and imagination, evoking both emotion and reason.”

Both statements do seem like big, enduring ideas that reside at the heart of English Language Arts. But neither, I fear, are particularly good examples of the way that language captures aspirations, imagination and meaning. As I’ve suggested before, I think we might do better by turning to writers like Anne Lamott who in Bird by Bird, her wonderful advice book to aspiring writers, speaks to both the power of language and the process of reading like this:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfold world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die . . . . My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

For me, this goes to the heart of the discipline of English Language Arts. And as part of the backwards planning approach to curriculum development that Wiggins and McTighe prescribe, this understanding about the purpose and power of reading can be turned into essential questions that can frame students’ practice and exploration.

To be both engaging and authentic, I believe that essential questions should be truly open-ended and not loaded—that is, they should allow for real debate and disagreement, not just be our teaching points or agendas masquerading as questions. With that and Anne Lamott’s understanding in mind, those questions might sound like this:

  • Can a book really comfort us or make us feel less alone?
  • Can a narrative about someone else’s life really help us understand our own?
  • Can a book really tell us how we might behave? Can it show us how to live and die?
  • And if so, how does it do that?

The next step in the backwards planning approach would be to design assessments that would give students the opportunity to share what they thought about those questions, with evidence drawn from their reading experience as well as from texts. These assessments could take a variety of forms, from book reviews to podcasts to accountable talk circles, as well as the more traditional literary essay. But they’d all ask students to transact with a text to ultimately consider what meaning it held for them.

Of course, to do this, students will need strategies and skills, scaffolding and instruction that both models and allows them to experience for themselves how a reader enters a text knowing virtually nothing and emerges pages later with a deeper sense of what it means to be human. And this is where all those other terms and assessments come in. Knowing a students’ reading level, for instance, gives us some sense of what kind of text they have the best chance of transacting with; while instruction that provides the kind of concrete text-based strategies needed for navigating complexity bands allows students to access books that reflect the increasingly complexity of their own lives and world.

To help teachers facilitate this work, Dorothy Barnhouse and I also map out a process of reading in What Readers Really Do that helps students draft and revise their sense of what a text means as they make their way through it, with strategies and skills directly tied to meaning. We also adapt the work of the literary theorist Robert Scholes and break down the process into three distinct but related modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation, which we define like this:

  • Comprehension is the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line-by-line and page-by-page.
  • Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes.
  • Evaluation occurs when, having constructed an understanding of a text, a reader considers whether it has any personal or social value for him.

In the next few weeks I’ll put those words into action by using them with a short text, and I’ll share some ideas for meaningful assessments. But for now what seems important to remember is that reading levels and strategies and skills are the means to an end, not the end itself. And assessments need to be aligned to what we truly value, not just what’s easy to measure, with students asked to apply strategies and skills to some meaningful, enduring end. Only then, I think, can both we and our students begin to see the forest through the trees. And only then are we truly able to benefit from the insight reading can give us.

Rethinking What Makes a ‘Just Right’ Book Just Right

Too often when I pull up a chair with teachers to confer with students during independent reading, we come to the same conclusion: With some stellar exceptions, the students aren’t doing a whole lot with the books they’re reading. Many, in fact, are downright lost or unable to say more about their book than what the blurb on the back cover says. And those who do manage to retell in a way that suggests they’re comprehending do little more than tick off a sequence of events as if everything that happened was of equal importance—despite the fact that most are reading books at their assessed reading level, a.k.a. a ‘just right’ book.

I think this happens for a number of reasons, the first of which has to do with what we should expect from a ‘just right’ book. According to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, leveled texts provide students with “the problem solving opportunities that build the reading process.” But they don’t guarantee that a student will take advantage of those opportunities and solve whatever problems—of decoding, inferring or holding a story line in your head over dozens of pages, to name just a few—the text might present.

There’s also the matter of our expectations, as seen in the tools we give students for determining if a book is just right. Often I see charts in classrooms that offer students guidelines for assessing a ‘just right’ book. I like this one in particular because it acknowledges enjoyment as a key factor. But the second bullet point about understanding can be problematic, as Ellin Keene demonstrated in the opening anecdote of her book To Understand, which recounts a conference she had with a student named Jamika. As she often does, Keene began the conference by asking Jamika if her book made sense, at which point Jamika exploded in a tirade that began with “‘Y’all always say that—does this book make sense?'” and ended with the sobering indictment, “‘But, none a ya’ll ever says what make sense mean.'”

To both assess a ‘just right’ book and help ensure that it makes sense, we also give students the 5 Finger Rule,  which asks them to read the first page of a book and count the number of words they can’t figure out by either decoding or using context clues. If they struggle with less than four or five words, the books is deemed to be just right. But that seems to assume that the only problem to solve in a text—and all that making sense hinges on—is figuring out individual words.

But let’s look at the first page of the Level R book The Sword Thief, by Peter Lerangis, one of the books in The 39 Clues series, which is popular in grade 4 on up. And let’s see how many problems a reader must solve, beyond decoding or vocabulary, for it to make sense:

Students who’ve read other books in the series have a better chance of solving the problems this page presents than those who jump into the story here. But even they might have trouble making sense of this, beginning with the very first line, which will throw most literal thinkers for a loop. To make sense of what follows, readers also must infer everything that’s happening, since nothing but the characters’ name and their relationship is stated directly. They must infer, for instance, that Amy and Dan are at an airport from the detail about the conveyor belt, that the airport is in a place called Venice from a sign, and from the siblings’ exchange of dialogue, that the battered black duffle bag belongs to them and is bulging with samurai swords that they fear will be found in `a random luggage search.

We could say, thus, that in order for this text to make sense readers must problem solve what’s happening and where—and perhaps even who’s in the scene, since readers could also come away thinking that Jackie Chan and a ninja warrior are in the airport, too. Unfortunately my experience leads me to believe that many readers won’t engage in trying to solve these problems but will just keep reading, picking up what they can and glossing over the rest, until they’re either lost or they reach the point where the story aligns with the back cover blurb, which they’ll use to ground themselves instead of using the actual details the author has provided.

So to raise the bar for what makes a ‘just right’ book right and encourage students to engage more in the kind of problem solving needed for a book to make sense, some of the teachers I work with and I have been experimenting with introducing another bullet point to classroom ‘Just Right’ charts:

  • You can figure out who’s in each scene, where and when it takes place, and what’s going on

This doesn’t mean students have to understand everything; few readers actually do. They skip over unfamiliar idioms and foreign language phrases. They don’t always catch every reference or allusion, or infer every detail’s significance. But they try to get the basics.

It also doesn’t mean that understanding consists of just getting the who, what, when and where. But it is a starting place—and a reasonable expectation for an active reader in a book that’s supposedly ‘just right.’ And so far, the results have been good, with many students reading more attentively and others more aware of when they’re confused because they now have a more concrete tool and strategy for monitoring and assessing their comprehension.

Of course, to hold students accountable for this, we need to give them some instruction and plenty of time to practice. But I’ll save that for a future post that explores what that can look like.

Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving almost upon us, I’d like to take a moment between regular posts to give thanks to all those who, in these crazy, stressful times of new standards, more tests and more expectations, help me stay centered and sane.

I’m thankful that I have the privilege to work with teachers, administrators and other educators who somehow manage to steer through the craziness with humor and warmth and grace, never losing sight, in this data-obsessed age, of the hard-to-measure needs of the whole child.

And I’m thankful for the children who make the work worthwhile. There is Kyra, for instance, a sixth grade student, who gives me a hug each time she sees me in the hall because, spying her with a book one day, I asked her what she was reading, and we discovered that we shared a love of historical fiction and the amazing way writers can help us see ourselves in characters who live in different times, different cultures and different places.

And there’s Oscar, a third grader, who reminded me last week that thinking is more important than correctness when he shared the personal narrative he was writing about the time he’d been knocked down by a cow in India. “In India,” he wrote, “cows can go anywhere because people believe they are holy.” He’d put the sentence in quotation marks as if it was a line of dialogue, which his class was learning about, and when I asked if those were words he actually spoke aloud, he answered without hesitation, “Yes. Those are the words I’m speaking to my reader, because they might not know about the cows.”

Kyra, in turn, reminds me of something else I’m thankful for—what Stephen Greenblatt, this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction, described in his acceptance speech as the “magic of the written word”:

“. . . the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space and time and distance, to have someone long dead seem to be in the room with you.”

And Oscar reminds me of the importance of readers, which I’m also deeply thankful to have. Publishing a blog post often feels like tossing a message in a bottle out to sea, not knowing when and where, if ever, it might land and be found by a reader. If you’re reading these words, do know how very thankful I am that you’ve pulled them out from the cybersea and taken the time to read them. May they give you as much sustenance, hope and belief in the work we’ve been called on to do as your reading this gives me.

Now on to the turkey. I’ll be back next week with Beyond All About Books Part 2.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

We all know how important it is to reflect and set goals for ourselves and our students, and to help students develop those same metacognitive capacities, I’m increasingly seeing student-written goals displayed in classrooms. “I need to infer more,” I spotted on an index card taped to a child’s desk. “My goal is to read Level Z books,” I spied on a bulletin board.

One the one hand, these student-generated goals speak to a student’s academic aspirations, which is certainly a good thing. But as a reader, I have to pause and wonder. Is that what constitutes success as a reader? To master the skill of inferring? To read a Level Z book? Are we somehow conveying, intentionally or not, that we read in order to climb the level ladder or infer a character trait, to fill out a worksheet on the main idea or make text-to-self connections?

For better or worse, levels, strategies and skills are frequently what’s most visible in our classrooms. Libraries are filled with bins of leveled books. Worksheets abound on identifying traits, the main idea and story mountain steps. Strategy charts hang on our walls and from clothes lines that stretch across our rooms. What tends to be far less visible, though, is why we really do all those things: why we take such pains to find a just right book, consider what kind of person a character is, make inferences and predictions. And in that vacuum, it’s perhaps no wonder that children come away thinking that what we value are the things they do see, which I think are actually the means to the end, not the end itself.

But what is the end and how do we make it visible? As I suggested in an earlier post, I think we could make our rooms and our students’ understanding of reading richer and deeper if we brought in the words of writers who read. Here, for example, is a blurb for Michael Ondaatje’s new book The Cat’s Table, by the writer Abraham Verghese that speaks to the deeper purposes of reading:

“When it was over, I had the sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life.”

And here are a few lines from Joyce Sutphen‘s poem, “Bookmobile,” that captures some of the real reasons that we read:

The librarian is busy, getting out

the inky pad and the lined cards.

I pace back and forth in the line,

hungry for the fresh bread of the page,

because I need something that will tell me

what I am . . . .

Of course we need to do more than hang these quotes on our classroom walls. We need to show children how a reader engages with a book in a way that allows them to come away with not just an understanding of a character but who they are themselves. We need to let them see how books can inform lives, giving us a wider, expanded vision of who we are, who we might become and how we might engage with the world.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I share ways of reframing reading workshop around these deeper purposes, with skills and strategies all firmly tied to more meaningful ends and time carved out to consider what a book might have to say to a student before they return it back to its bin and take another one out.

But there’s a simple step we all can take to make sure our students don’t think that all we value is their level or our worksheets: We can ask them if they love what they’re reading. We can ask if they’ve ever found a character who’s just like a best friend, if they’ve ever heard an echo of their own thoughts and feelings in the pages of a book, if they’ve ever come away understanding someone better than they had before. And we can share what we’ve gotten from books that’s allowed us to go forth into the world with more understanding and awareness of both ourselves and others.

For this, I believe, is what reading can give us. Not a letter on an level assessment or a score on a test, but a deeper understanding of the human condition and all the fallible, convoluted ways we try to make something of our lives. But most of our students will only see this if we offer them something more meaningful and visible to reach for than this when they pick up a book:

The Messy Work of Reading

Here’s a question I found myself thinking about as I prepared for a presentation that I thought could use some visuals. What does reading look like? Not the act of opening the covers of a book and scanning the lines with your eyes, but the path a mind takes as it tries to make meaning of both the words on a single page and the pages of an entire book? And what does the teaching of that journey look like?

I decided that too often our vision of reading looks like this: a straight road that leads over time and many pages to a particular meaning we want our students to ‘get’ that we, as teachers, have gotten from our repeated reading and teaching of a book or from a teacher’s guide.

Of course, we don’t simply set our students on the road and expect them to arrive there without support. We ask them questions. We direct them to passages we know are important from our own prior reading or the teacher’s guide. We invite them to make predictions and connections, latching on to those we think will help nudge them down that predetermined road so that ultimately they ‘see’ what we saw in the text and ‘get’ whatever we got.

Whether we do this explicitly or not, you could say we offer students a route map, like the highway sign below, with page numbers posted instead of mileage and literary features as destinations. Foreshadowing, we convey through our questions and prompts, coming up on page 23. Significant scene on page 57. Important image on page 104.

              These practices might help some students read more closely, as the Common Core Standards ask them to, but I’m not sure how it helps them reach the Standards’ overarching goals as captured in the “Students Who are College and Career Ready” descriptors−particularly the goal of demonstrating independence “without significant scaffolding.” That’s because I believe that the road of meaning making is only straight when we’ve already read a text before and can see retroactively how the pieces fit together to form a meaningful whole−and even then there’s usually no single road, since whatever meaning we’ve made of the whole is open to interpretation, which depends on who we are, what we’ve noticed, and how we fit that together.

Instead, when we enter a text for the first time, we often have no idea where it’s going nor what the writer might be exploring. If we did, there would be no point in reading on; we’d know everything right from the start. But not knowing means that, on a first read, we can’t know which passages are significant. We can’t know which scenes are pivotal, which details will reverberate later, beyond a general understanding and awareness that everything we encounter in a text−from the tiniest detail to the overall structure−potentially carries meaning and has been deliberately chosen by the author for some purpose that will eventually become clearer as we keep on reading.

In this way, I think the path of meaning making as we make our way the first time through a text actually looks like this: a messy tangle of highways and side roads, with on-ramps and off-ramps, dead-ends and detours, and lanes that merge or diverge and divide or sometimes go round in circles−all of which we must navigate on our own by paying attention to the details we encounter and considering what they might mean, while remaining open and flexible enough to revise our understanding as we go.

My co-author Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore what it means to teach with this vision of reading in our new book, What Readers Really Do, which will come out next year. I’ll be sharing out-takes and ideas from it here. But for now I think it’s important to consider that if we want to support and nurture readers who are able to enter a text knowing nothing and emerge pages later with a deep understanding of a text’s ideas and themes, we need to let them know that this is what reading looks like. It’s not a beeline to a given, accepted meaning that either you get or you don’t. It’s a messy, complicated and confusing process that’s filled with wrong turns, false starts and uncertainty. And I believe we serve our students better if we acknowledge and honor that messiness and confusion as the place from which learning and understanding starts.