It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison, used by permission. http://www.facebook.com/JoelRobisonPhotography

Last month I plunged into nonfiction by first exploring what readers really do when they read it and then looking at some of the challenges it poses at the level of comprehension—i.e., what the words literally and inferentially mean line by line and page by page. There are many challenges for readers at this level, especially when we move from books packaged by educational publishers, like Mondo and Rigby, to trade books. At the risk of over-generalizing, the former tends to maximize the accessibility of the content, with text features that support easy fact retrieval and explicitly state the sub-topics. Trade books, on the other hand, frequently operate in less straightforward ways and often require far more inferring to fully comprehend.

They also have more of what I call an authorial presence. That is, we feel the presence of the author more strongly in trade books, whether it’s Mark Kurlansky who begins his fascinating book The Story of Salt with an anecdote from his own life or Seymour Simon who starts his book Volcanoes not with a standard definition or introduction of words like ‘magma,’ but with the ancient Romans and Hawaiians who worshipped gods of fire they associated with volcanoes.

Like many of the nonfiction authors I’ve looked at this summer—Kathleen V. Kudlinski, Henry Petroski, Eugene Linden, and Neil Degrasse Tyson—these writers take us on the kind of journey of thought I described in my first nonfiction post, in which, as writer Alan Lightman puts it, “the facts are important but never enough.” These writers use facts not just to inform us but to explore ideas, and they’ve deliberately chosen and arranged the facts in a particular way to help us, as readers, ‘see’ and consider those ideas.

Doing this, however, requires a kind of mind work that’s different enough from comprehending a sentence to warrant being called something else—which is why Dorothy Barnhouse and I differentiate this kind of thinking from comprehension by calling it understanding. It’s inferring and interpreting across a whole text, not just with a line or a page, which adds another layer of challenge. So what, as teachers, do we need to do to help our students not just comprehend but engage in understanding as well?

We can begin by sharing what Donna Santman calls in her great book for middle school teachers Shades of Meaning a “reading secret”: that there are issues and ideas hiding in the texts students read and one of their main jobs as readers is to think about the ideas the writer might be exploring and how they develop across a text.

For some students, with some texts, this is enough. In Thinking Through Genre, for instance, Heather Lattimer recounts what happened in a 6th grade classroom studying feature articles when, instead of asking students to find the main idea, she asked them to simply jot down the details that stood out for them and, from that, think about what the writer might be wanting them to understand. Rather than groaning, as they did whenever they heard the words ‘main idea,’ they plunged into the text and came up with an array of fresh, insightful thinking.

Many students, however, need more support to engage in the work of understanding. Unfortunately, though, many of the strategies we offer don’t really help. To see what I mean, let’s look more closely at Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of Salt, with its wonderful illustrations by S. D. Schindler:

A typical read aloud or guided reading lesson might begin with asking the students to predict what they think they’ll discover in the book by looking at the front cover. This might lead some students to say that they were going to learn about salt around the world and through the ages because the people on the cover appear to be from different times and places—though many a student might simply say they were going to learn about salt.

We then might do a picture walk, which might confirm that initial prediction about salt throughout the ages, as students spotted mummies, knights and people dressed in togas. But many of the pictures are baffling, such as this one:

We might also do a text-feature walk, zooming in on the section titles and headings as a way of anticipating the information the text contains. As you can see, though, from the title above, this might not get students very far either because many of the titles are as baffling as the pictures. But the bigger problem is that relying on text features encourages students to see sections as discrete entities, not as parts of a whole, and as such text-feature walks can work against the idea of the text as a journey where the whole point is discovering more than you expected as you pay attention to the turns and twists and connect detail to detail.

We also ask students to scan and skim to find the main idea, which could conceivably yield this sentence from the last page of the book: “Salt shaped the history of the world.”

Like the prediction about the book containing information about salt throughout the ages, this statement does seem to circle what we might call the main idea. But it only goes so far. It doesn’t get to the deeper exploration of why or how salt shaped the world, which can only be gotten by going on the journey and reading closely. We can, though, help students do this by using the same strategy that Dorothy and I offer students when they read fiction: noticing patterns and considering what the writer might be trying to show us through them.

Inviting students to think about patterns—whether it’s a word, a detail, an image, an event or a structural device that repeats—could help students, for instance, notice how many times the word ‘power’ appears. And noticing that, they’d be better positioned to ‘see’ how other sections involve power, even when the word isn’t used. Noticing this might also lead them to discover patterns within the power pattern, as there are several stories about salt being used as a means of control and others where salt is an agent of liberation. And that’s just from noticing one word. There are also recurring stories about how our need for salt led to innovations and stories about things—streets, cities, food—named after salt. There’s even a pattern in the book’s structure, with the book beginning and ending in the present, and the past sandwiched in between.

Any of these patterns would act as an in-road to the deeper ideas that infuse the book, which is why it’s not necessary for students to ‘see’ the exact same patterns that we’ve seen. Just the act of noticing patterns gets students thinking—for as the writer Norman Maclean says, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” And that’s what happens on a journey when we set off into the unknown. Our senses are heightened as we take in the sights and go off on detours that surprisingly lead to places full of meaning. All that’s needed is an open mind—and a strategy that supports close reading.

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 1)

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing the writer Junot Diaz give the keynote address at NCTE. His speech was a fierce and impassioned testament to both the power of the written word and of teachers to change student lives, and I left the hall determined to read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which re-invents the American immigrant experience through the eyes of a nerdy Dominican boy who’s landed in New Jersey.

I wouldn’t be writing this, however, if I simply read the book. As it was, it sat unopened on my shelf for more weeks than I care to admit to because I was nervous about reading it. I’d heard that it was filled with Spanish, and not knowing Spanish, I was afraid I’d be frustrated by my inability to understand. And so the book sat there until I decided not to let fear rule my reading life. I cracked it open and immediately fell in love with the characters and Diaz’s sentences. And as for the Spanish, it wasn’t a problem. I could often get the gist from the context, and when that failed, I simply read on, so engaged and enamored with the voice and the story that those unknown words didn’t matter.

I share this because I think there’s a lesson about vocabulary here. Of course, we want to build our students’ word banks and foster an appreciation of language, especially for those learning English. But if we also want to build resilient readers who feel confident of their ability to tackle a text, we may want to reconsider how much vocabulary we introduce up front, aware that too much pre-teaching may actually undermine our students’ ability to become strong, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning unless we know all the words.

What’s needed, I think, is a balance between helping students acquire vocabulary  and helping them become stronger readers—and a recognition that those two things are not exactly the same. In a recent post, for instance, I looked at the opening of the nonfiction book Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd, which uses the word ‘pool’ on the very first page in a way I suspect many children are unfamiliar with. We could, of course, pre-teach the word so they don’t think starfish live in swimming pools. But if we use a text-based Know/Wonder chart and model its use with the first page, we could question the word instead of pre-teach it—as in “I know that starfish live in pools because the writer says that right here, but I wonder if this means swimming pools since I’ve never seen a starfish in a pool.” This would invite students to look out for clues in both the text and the pictures, with a dictionary consulted afterwards if more clarification was needed. And that hunt for clues would greatly increase the likelihood of them remembering the other meaning of the word.

To help students discover what I did when I finally dove into Oscar Wao, I also recommend that teachers give students the opportunity to see how much they can figure out from the words they do know, without getting hung up on the ones they don’t. Here, for instance, is the beginning of an article, “Can Animals Think” by Eugene Linden, that a 6th grade English Language Learner teacher was preparing to have her class read as part of a unit on animal intelligence:

The teacher worried there were too many words the students didn’t know and that those words would bog them down and impact their comprehension. But rather that pre-teaching them, we decided to see what would happen if we asked the students to work with a partner and highlight all the parts they could understand, which looked something like this:

She then asked the partners to re-read the paragraph with just the highlighted words, and in virtually every case, the students ‘got’ what was being described in a way that allowed them to continue engaging with the larger ideas in the article—and they were even able to posit the meaning of some of the unknown words. Then after they’d finished the article and discussed what they thought the writer had to say about the intelligence of animals, the teacher asked the class to vote on a handful of words they’d like to know, and those words became the focus of their vocabulary work for the week.

Depending on the word, this vocabulary work might include one or more of the strategies and tools Janet Allen offers in her wonderful book Inside Words, such as the Frayer Model, which asks students to think about how a new vocabulary word is similar and different to other words they know, and concept ladders, which invite students to dig into an abstract noun to better understand its causes, effects, uses and nuances. In this way, students have strategies that both help them learn vocabulary in a deep, more lasting way and to navigate texts with unfamiliar words with more resilience and confidence, knowing that that happens to every reader every once in a while.

Of course, there are times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. And so in Part 2 I’ll share how a group of high school teachers I recently worked with made decisions about which words to pre-teach and why as they prepared to incorporate more diverse complex texts into their curriculum. For now, though, I think what’s important to remember is that teaching students words is not the same as teaching them how to read—and that students need strategies and tools for both, along with lots of time to practice.

Applying the Process of Meaning Making to Nonfiction: A Look at Comprehension

In What Readers Really DoDorothy Barnhouse and I break down the work of meaning making into three strands or modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation. We define comprehension as 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. And evaluation occurs when a reader critiques a text and/or considers what personal or social value it has for him.

What Readers Really Do explores what these modes look like in fiction, but readers engage in them in nonfiction, too. And in both fiction and nonfiction, readers move between these modes fluidly and often recursively; that is, they don’t wait until they’ve comprehended everything to engage in understanding. Instead they braid their comprehension, understanding and evaluation together as they read to construct meaning.

It is, however, useful to explore each mode of thinking separately to get a feel for the challenges of each. And so this week, I want to explore what’s involved in comprehending nonfiction. Some of my own awareness of the comprehension challenges students face comes from the educator and writer Tony Stead, whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. In Reality Checks, for instance, Tony explores how students can answer questions without fully comprehending what they’ve read, demonstrating how this happens through the following text, which I’ll ask you to read then answer some questions:

My hunch is that you answered those questions ‘correctly’ by automatically drawing on your knowledge of syntax—despite the fact that the words were all nonsense. And students frequently do the same, using their syntactical knowledge to provide us with answers they don’t really comprehend.

Students also often impose their own knowledge—or what they think they know—on a text without reading attentively enough to see how that does or doesn’t match up to what the writer is saying. Last year, for example, I worked with a group of fifth grade boys who were researching and writing opinion pieces about the benefits of video games. They’d found a great article that explained how video games helped build their users’ visual skills. But when asked what they thought visual skills meant, they said it was the ability to read the smallest line on an eye exam chart. They’d plucked the fact, correctly recognizing they could use it to support their opinion, without really comprehending it. And having gotten what they wanted, they glossed over the part where the writer explored those skills more.

On top of all that, nonfiction texts often require a lot of inferring, which I noticed as I began to explore the demands that some of the Standards’ Text Exemplars place on students. Here, for example is an excerpt of the grade K-1 exemplar Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd:

Starfish live in the sea. Starfish live deep down in the sea. Starfish live in pools by the sea.

Some starfish are purple. Some starfish are pink.

. .  . Starfish have many arms. The arms are called rays. Starfish have arms, but no legs. Starfish have feet, but no toes. They glide and slide on tiny tube feet. They move as slowly as a snail.

The basket star looks like a starfish, but it is a little different. It doesn’t have tube feet. It moves with its rays. It has rays that go up and rays that go down.

Tiny brittle stars are like the basket star. They hide under rocks in pools by the sea.

The mud star hides in the mud. It is a starfish. It has tiny tube feet.

Setting aside the use of the word ‘pool’ and the puzzling thought of arms having feet, readers must infer that basket stars aren’t actually starfish. Then they must infer that, being like basket stars, brittle stars aren’t starfish either because they don’t have tube feet, which—another inference—is part of what distinguishes a starfish. Only through those inferences would students be able to meet the Reading Information Standard 3, which asks that first graders “Describe the connection between two pieces of information in a text.” And none of the standard comprehension strategies would help them, beyond a generic call to infer.

So the question for teachers is, what are we to do? We don’t, of course, have to use the exemplars; they are there as examples of the kinds of texts we should be exposing students to, not as an actual reading list. Nor do we have to meet Standard RI3 with every text we share. Instead, we could use a book like this to complicate and deepen students’ understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, since many young students think that nonfiction always has ‘real’ photographs and only fiction has illustrations.

But if we want students to truly comprehend texts like this, we need instruction that helps them be more inquiring and aware of what they don’t get. And this is how a text-based Know/Wonder chart can be as useful in fiction as in nonfiction, as it encourages students to acknowledge their confusion and connect details of a text together in order to infer. Thus students might wonder if starfish really lived in swimming pools, if basket and brittle stars were or weren’t starfish, and why their limbs were called arms, not legs. And they’d be reading forward and thinking backward to consider possible answers.

As I wrote in “The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut,” the challenge for us, as teachers, is in letting students wrestle with this, trading ideas and going back to the text to look for evidence and clues, instead of intervening in order to clear their confusion up. Letting students wrestle with the text like this engages them in what my math colleagues sometimes call a “productive struggle.” Kay Merseth, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes productive struggle this way:

. . . it’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the fact of not knowing exactly how to proceed.

The worst that might happen if we didn’t step in is continued confusion, which could be remedied by inquiring further and reading another text (as I, myself, actually felt compelled to do just to make sure my inference was right). And the benefits of struggling are huge. Researchers at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore have discovered that students who struggle with problem solving actually retain what they learn far more than those who haven’t. That means that students might comprehend Starfish more than we comprehended “The Dodlings.” And if, in the end, we do ask students questions, their answers will add up to more than the equivalent of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Some Questions about Text Dependent Questions

As the school year finally begins to wind down here in New York City, a new term is the air: text dependent questions. I first encountered the term in the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria, which recommends that Standards-based instructional material includes a sequence of “rigorous text dependent questions that require students to demonstrate that they not only can follow the details of what is explicitly stated but also are able to make valid claims that square with all the evidence in the text.” And now Student Achievement Partners, the group founded by several of the Common Core authors, has issued a “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions” along with an ever-growing number of “Close Reading Exemplars” that show this method in action.

These text dependent questions stand in contrast to some of the common kinds of questions often heard in classrooms, such as questions about students’ own feelings or experiences and questions related to strategies or skills, like “What’s the main idea?” I agree that these kinds of questions are problematic and should be used sparingly. The first kind can shift students’ attention away from the text to their own thoughts, while the second can turn the act of reading into a scavenger hunt, as I explored a few weeks ago in my post on basal readers.

But text dependent questions seem problematic, as well. The Student Achievement Partners’ guide says that text dependent questions aim to “help students see something worthwhile that they would not have seen in a more cursory reading.” This is a goal I completely share. But the text dependent question approach relies on teachers directing and prompting students to what they want them to see, not on teaching in a way that empowers students to more independently notice what there is to be noticed through their own agency. And in this way text dependent questions run the risk of creating teacher dependent students instead of strong, flexible readers.

To see what I mean, let’s look at one of the Close Reading Exemplars from the Student Achievement Partners’ Achieve the Core site. Here eighth graders are asked to dip into a passage from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, Written by Himselfwhich begins like this:

Like all the Exemplars, this one asks students to first read the passage silently to themselves, without any introduction or instruction. They then follow along for a second go through as the teacher reads the text aloud in order to offer “all students access to this complex text.” Then the questions start:

This read-listen-then-answer-questions sequence seems to almost guarantee that some, if not most, students will read and listen to the passage passively, waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do. It also seems to mirror standardized tests, where students don’t often begin to think until they hit the questions, rather than the moment they first begin to read.

The questions themselves also seem test-like; you can almost imagine them being followed by a choice of four possible answers. That’s because there seems to be one right answer, and the questions are seeing if you ‘got it’ or not. In this way, the questions are assessing comprehension, not helping students build it, which means that students who are able to comprehend will probably do fine, while those who can’t, will not. And one can only imagine how those answers might be pulled and yanked like a tooth from those struggling students through continued prompting.

But what if, instead, we taught students that every reader enters a text not knowing where it’s headed, and because of that they keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re confused or wondering about, knowing that they’ll figure out more as they both read forward and think backwards? This vision of what readers do acknowledges that reading is just as much a process of drafting and revising as writing is, with readers constantly questioning and developing their understanding of what an author is saying as they make their way through a text. And it supports the idea that readers are actively engaged and thinking about how the pieces of a text fit together, beginning with the very first line.

To make this process more visible to students, Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed our text-based Know/Wonder chart. Depending on students’ familiarity with the chart, we might briefly model how we use it in a way that encourages students to acknowledge their confusion by reading the first two sentences and noting the following:

Students who had noticed the title, might say that the narrator was a slave, which would help answer the first question and also raise a lot more, including how a slave got to be friends with white boys; where, exactly, was this taking place; how old is/was the narrator; and, as they read further on, how did he manage to get a book and was he allowed to take the bread or had he stolen it.  Reading forward on the lookout for answers to these student-generated questions, the students would pick up clues that engaged them in considering the third text dependent question about how Douglass’s life as a slave differed from those of the boys. And those students who hadn’t caught the title could hold on to the question, made visible by the chart, until later on in the passage where they’d encounter more clues. And at that point they’d need to think backwards to revise whatever they’d made of the text so far in light of this realization.

Thus, all this could happen the first time the students read the text with virtually no teacher prompting, because they’d be reading closely from the get-go, fitting details together like puzzle pieces to see the larger picture they revealed. And doing so without any prompting would contribute to an increase in both their engagement and their ability as readers. It would also be an experience they could transfer to the next complex text they read.

Additionally all this drafting and revising would eventually enable students to “make valid claims that square with all the evidence in the text,” in a much more independent way than the text dependent question method permits, because so much more of the thinking is theirs. So let’s not jump so quickly on the text dependent question bandwagon and consider, instead, making the process of meaning making more visible to our students, by offering instruction not directions and giving them time to practice–and perhaps remembering that asking a question doesn’t constitute teaching, nor does answering one always mean learning.

Skills versus Meaning: The Problem with Packaged Reading Programs

I began to work in schools in the late 1980’s, right around the time that the tides were turning away from packaged reading programs—otherwise known as basals—to what Ralph Peterson and Mary Ann Eeds, authors of the seminal book Grand Conversations, called “real books”—books “written by authors who know how to unlock the world with words and to open our eyes and our hearts.”

Those were the years in which teachers and schools heeded the words of the great children’s book author Katherine Paterson who said:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”

To that end schools invested in classroom libraries where students could choose independent reading books. And teachers helped students form literature circles to discuss what they read in accordance with Peterson and Eeds’s four core beliefs:

    • Story is an exploration and illumination of life
    • Interpretation is the result of a transactional process in which readers bring meaning to as well as take meaning from a text
    • Children are born makers of meaning
    • Dialogue is the best method for teaching and learning about literature

It was a heady, invigorating time—and a challenging one, too, as many of us learned that it wasn’t always enough to just put a book in a child’s hand or let them talk with their peers. Some students couldn’t comprehend what they read; some didn’t know how to listen and talk in a way that could build and deepen understanding. And so many of us started teaching strategies and skills that would help students reap the rewards that Katherine Paterson so eloquently spelled out.

I’ve dedicated my work life to supporting teachers do this valuable work, but this year I’m seeing a disturbing trend back toward packaged reading programs, a.k.a. 21st century-style basals. I think this has happened for a number of reasons: the climate of testing, the obsession with data, the belief among some who wield power that corporate publishing conglomerates know more about teaching than teachers do. Plus there’s the fact that real, authentic reading—that transactional exchange that stretches imaginations and illuminates life—is hard to assess and quantify. But with so many schools going back to packaged programs, I decided that I needed to look at them more closely, both to see what I was up against and make sure I wasn’t misjudging them.

And so one day during a break I opened up the fourth grade version of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s program Journeys to see what I could see. Having been raised on Dick and Jane, the first thing I noticed was that the Table of Contents was filled with the name of real authors whose books were worth reading precisely for the reasons Katherine Paterson’s enumerated. There was Kate DiCamillo and Julia Alvarez, Laurence Yep and Pam Munoz Ryan. The illustrations were charming and I had to concede that the vocabulary component might be useful. But I ran into trouble when I looked more closely at one of the weekly lessons.

The text for that week was “The Screech Owl Who Liked Television,” which combined two chapters from Jean Craighead George‘s autobiographical collection of stories about animals, The Tarantula in My PurseThese two chapters recounted the George family’s experience with an injured gray screech owl they brought into their homes, and among the many things the story explores and illuminates is how little we can ever truly know the animals we share our lives with and how letting go is as much a part of love as trying to spare and shield those we love from the pain that letting go brings.

If we say that meaning is the ultimate goal, you would think that the week’s comprehension lesson would focus on a strategy or skill that helped students access and consider the text’s deeper meaning. But the comprehension lesson was on fact vs. opinion, with students asked to search the text for examples, as if reading were a scavenger hunt. I do think it might be possible to use an understanding of fact and opinion to get to those deeper levels, but the program didn’t ask students asked to do that. Instead they were asked to explain how the facts and opinions they collected could or couldn’t be verified as a means of proving what each sample was.

To be fair, there were some comprehension questions that seemed to circle the deeper meaning. But the students weren’t given any strategies to answer those beyond the literal level, which was all that seemed to be expected of them from the sample answers in the Teacher’s Guide. Mostly they were asked to recall information, not to stretch their imaginations and consider what their eyes and hearts were open to. In this way, the text seemed little more than the vehicle to practice a skill with, rather than one to read closely and examine in order to “gain the maximum insight,” as the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria requires instructional material to do.

So . . . my final verdict? The texts in Journeys were dramatically better than the Dick and Jane books I grew up on, which makes these anthologies a potentially great resource for short, well-written texts. But what they asked students to do with these texts was often boring and lifeless, with insight seemingly relegated to the sidelines and skills disconnected from meaning. And that left me with one final question: Was it a fact or an opinion that all packaged reading programs were aligned to the Common Core Standards—despite whatever they claimed?  Verification seemed in order.

From No to Yes: Making Meaning with Read Alouds

Over the years my thinking about read alouds has evolved as I’ve tried to hone in on the essential experience of how readers make meaning as they read. And at some point along the way, my partner David, whose pictures frequently grace these posts, introduced me to the photographer Richard Avedon and his ‘Series of No’s’. In his attempt to make his work more authentic, simple and direct, Avedon said, “No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narratives.” All these no’s, he said, forced him to yes: to the subject on a plain white background and “the thing that happens between us.”

I loved the less-is-more sensibility in this. And using it as a kind of mentor text, I’ve developed my own series of no’s for read alouds, which I believe support getting to the essential yes of what can happen between a reader and the page:

To see this series of no’s in action, here’s a read aloud I did the other week in a first-third grade special-ed bridge class, using Jon Klassen‘s delightful new picture book I Want My Hat Back and the What We Know/What We Wonder chart that I use to support students’ meaning making from kindergarten right up through twelfth grade. (And spoiler alert: I share the end of the book.)

The teacher, Christine LaPlume, and I gathered the children on the rug, where instead of engaging in any pre-reading activities, such as picture walks or front cover predictions, I introduced the chart to the class and said that we’d be using it to do what readers usually do in their heads: keep track of what we’re learning and wondering in order to think deeply about the story. Then I turned to the first page spread, which consisted of a picture of the bear on the cover and read the following two lines:

My hat is gone.

I want it back.

We tried out the chart with those first two sentences, with the students saying that they learned that there was a bear whose hat was missing and they wondered what happened to the hat. I continued reading then, with the students learning that neither a fox nor a snake had seen the hat. Then we came to this page spread and immediately several students called out, “The rabbit’s got the hat!”

After reading the page, however, there was some disagreement. Some of the children thought the hat was the bear’s because the one the rabbit had on was the same as the hat on the back cover. But another group took the rabbit at his word, not even reconsidering when a student named Alay said, “But you know the way the rabbit’s talking? It’s like the way you talk when you’ve done something you’re not supposed to. Like maybe he did steal the hat.”

And here was the tricky moment. Here was a student who’d picked up the clues the writer had deliberately left, and there were the students who were having none of it. In the past I might have leapt on Alay’s comment and helped everyone see what he saw. Or I might not have even left Alay’s insight up to chance and directed the students to the rabbit’s words with a loaded question prompt. But remembering my series of no’s—and trusting the process to weed out missteps by offering multiple on-ramps for meaning—I reframed some of the thinking as questions and added two wonderings to the chart: “Did the rabbit take the hat?” and “Could the rabbit be lying?”

Then we kept on going, keeping track of our learning, until finally a deer asks the bear what the hat looks like, and as the bear describes the hat, he suddenly remembers that he saw it somewhere and rushes back to find the rabbit.

At that point, even the most pro-rabbit readers agreed that the rabbit took the hat, though as we came to the next to last page, which showed the bear happily wearing the hat without any sign of the rabbit, a final burning question came up: What happened to the rabbit?

So I turned the page and read this exchange between the bear and a squirrel, after which all the students literally gasped. “The bear ate the rabbit!” they said virtually in unison. And when I asked them what made them think that, every single student pointed to the fact that the bear was talking just the way the rabbit had when he denied having seen the hat.

Christine and I both applauded the students for the amazing thinking work they’d done, and as we debriefed, she shared that she’d been struggling with teaching some of the very same strategies the students had actually used here. Questioning came up automatically here, as did predicting (though I deliberately reframed their predictions as questions to avoid the kind of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thinking predictions sometimes engender.) Most notably, they also inferred, with Alay additionally making a connection that enabled him to consider that the rabbit might be lying. And they did so as a natural outgrowth of readers trying to make meaning of a text, not through a typical strategy lesson.

Of course, many of the students will need more specific instruction and time to practice the kind of work Alay did, which laid the groundwork for the students’ insight at the end. The whole class might benefit, for instance, by returning to this text to become more aware of the clues the author planted (not all of which they caught this first time). And they could use additional practice in thinking specifically about the possible subtext in a character’s dialogue, using books like Ruby the Copycat by Peggy Rathmann or any number of books from the wonderful Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. These could be done in a subsequent read aloud or in a more targeted small group. But either way, I’d begin by reminding them of what they were able to see and understand in I Want My Hat Back.

And that reminds me of another no: No to the deficit model of learning—and yes to building on strengths.

Tying Means to Ends, or Making Sure Our Strategy Instruction is Strategic

Last summer a friend sent me a link to a pair of documents written by two of the authors of the Common Core Standards, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel. Titled “Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literary” for Grades K-2 and Grades 3-12, respectively, they aimed to establish guidelines for designing instructional material aligned to the Common Core. The intended audience was publishers, yet the documents seemed to have major implications for teachers and schools as well, especially those that develop and design curricula and lessons in-house.

Both documents talk at length about the need for instruction to be text-based, not strategy-based, a distinction that sometimes calls into question practices currently found in many classrooms. The Criteria for Grades 3-12, for instance, states that “Reading strategies must take their right place in service of reading comprehension . . . rather than being taught as a separate body of material.”

This section, along with others, has sparked much discussion and debate, especially over whether these documents have veered too far into pedagogy, by telling teachers how they should teach, not just what the outcomes of their teaching should be. But the fact is there’s been controversy brewing over strategy instruction for a while, beginning perhaps with Nancie Atwell‘s 2007 book The Reading Zone, in which she raised some provocative questions about the role of strategies, seeing them too often as distractions or as test prep study skills.

Like Atwell, I’ve noticed how strategies like connecting can pull students out of a text, sending them off on recollections or tangents that sometimes have little to do with what they’re reading beyond the surface level. And I’m mindful of the cautionary story a colleague once shared with me. When she asked her fourth-grade son about homework, he told her he had to write some connections. “Well, you better start reading then,” she said, to which he replied, “No, I don’t have to read. I just have to make connections.”

I think this happens because we do sometimes teach strategies as a separate body of material—or as I tend to put it, we teach them as ends unto themselves, not as the means to an end. We ask students, for instance, to make connections seemingly for the sake of doing so, not explicitly in order to understand something they couldn’t have without using the strategy. And we often choose books for the express purpose of teaching inferring or determining importance, not because they’re books that do what books do best, expand and enrich our notions of the world and the human experience. In this way, we severe strategies from the strategic end of meaning making, and we risk students thinking that ‘doing’ the strategy is more important than arriving at insight.

To rectify this, I’ve tried various ways to reconnect strategies more explicitly to meaning making. In addition to focusing on meaning while conferring, I’ve created charts over the years like the ones below that ask students to think about how the connections they were making were or weren’t helping them as readers (with the second one from a high school demonstration using the opening of Peter Orner‘s short story “The Raft”):

 And with a third-grade teacher who was reading aloud Beverley Naidoo’s moving story of life under apartheid Journey to Jo’Berg, I designed this chart to help the students ground their predictions in the details of the text while still honoring what they hoped would happen if the world was a better place:

Eventually, though, I discovered that if I simply asked students to more deliberately keep track of what meaning they were making as they were reading and what they were confused or wondered about (using the KNOW/WONDER chart I shared in an earlier post to make that visible), many students automatically made connections, inferences, predictions and asked questions without my needing to explicitly teach them to do so.

It’s what, in fact, I did last week as I looked at the excerpt from Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am! I acknowledged that I wasn’t completely sure I knew what that last line really meant, which led me to generate a slew of questions about what it might mean. To do that, I unconsciously drew on my own experience and knowledge of human nature (that is, I made some connections) to entertain some possible scenarios, which also involved some predicting and inferring. But I didn’t set out to connect or predict or question or infer for the sake of doing so. Instead, I set out to comprehend and understand what the author might be exploring, knowing that the details I encountered had been purposely chosen and carried some significance or meaning I needed to consider. And I used those strategies to help me think about the meaning those details might hold.

Most students I’ve shared this passage with, in grades four through seven, have done the exact same thing. They’ve developed questions and made connections to infer and develop hunches and drafts of understanding, without an explicit lesson on questioning, connecting, predicting or inferring. And those students who seem hesitant or reluctant are almost inevitably able to get better at it when given more time and encouragement to practice in a small group setting.

Finally, I and the teachers I’ve worked with have found that when we shift the focus of our lessons from the practice of strategies to the quest for meaning, students read more actively, with more engagement and excitement because they’re actually thinking. And thinking, as the writer Goethe said, “is more interesting than knowing.” It’s exhilarating, electric and thrilling. It’s the mind igniting with the sparks of insight and discovered meaning.