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.

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.

Helping Students Practice Problem Solving in ‘Stepped-Up’ Small Groups

© 2011 D.A.Wagner - http://dawagner.com

As I explored in last week’s post on rethinking ‘just right’ books, there are many more problems a reader needs to solve for a text to ‘make sense’ than the meaning or decoding of individual words—especially as texts become more complex. Readers often have to figure out basic information, like who’s who and what’s going on, just to have a foothold on a story. And while some readers do this automatically, picking up details and using them to infer what the writer is saying indirectly, many students don’t, which leaves them at risk for getting lost and being unable to access rich, more complex texts.

To help students practice this kind of problem solving in a way that encourages them to read more closely and builds their ability as readers, I’ve had to do some problem solving myself. Along with my What Readers Really Do co-author Dorothy Barnhouse, I’ve thought about how to adapt the structures of guided reading to offer small group instruction that more directly engages students in the problem-solving process of meaning making.

Like typical guided reading, the approach I’ve developed is aimed at a small group of students that present similar needs, who I gather together to read an excerpt from a text that’s been carefully chosen not just by its level but by the particular demands it puts on a reader. I don’t, however, automatically engage in pre-reading activities—that is, no picture walks or front-loading of information or predicting based on the cover as a simple matter of course. Nor do I ask students to practice the usual round-up of comprehension strategies, such as connecting or visualizing (though these sometimes crop up).

Instead I design lessons that encourage students to attend to the details of a text in order to solve one or more of the problems the text presents. And to help students get a feel for that kind of thinking, I sometimes begin with a text below their reading level then ‘step up’ to one that’s more complex.

Dorothy and I unpack a classroom example of this kind of ‘stepped-up’ approach at the end of Chapter 3, which is currently available online at Heinemann. But to illustrate what this could look like here, let’s look at how I might help a small group of level P and Q students solve one particular problem readers encounter as texts get more complex: figuring out who a first-person narrator is and what kind of situation they’re in.

I’d introduce the lesson by letting the students know that when they read a book with a first-person narrator, one of their very first jobs as readers is to think about who the narrator is and what seems to be happening to them. Sometimes, I’d explain, it’s really obvious because the writer comes right out and tells us, like the way the Geronimo Stilton books always say, “I, Geronimo Stilton, . . . .” or the Amber Brown books say, “I, Amber Brown, . . . .” But other times it’s not so clear because, instead of saying things directly, the writer leaves us little clues that we have to piece together to figure this out. Then we’d look at the first page of a text below the student’s independent reading level, like Leftover Lily, a level M book by Sally Warner, where basic information is conveyed in indirect ways:

Even students who’ve been assessed at higher reading levels aren’t always able to figure out that the I’ is Lily without slowing down and really thinking about it. Some students, for example, initially think that Daisy is the narrator because she uses the word I; while some think there are four people in the scene, Daisy, Lily, LaVon and a still-as-yet-to-be-named ‘I’.

I’d let the students bat ideas back and forth, reminding myself of the critical need to keep my own mouth shut and jumping in only to ask them what made them think what they did. This process would ultimately allow students to figure out that the I’ is Lily and that she’s being excluded from what had been a threesome by Daisy, who doesn’t seem to be very nice, despite the smile and perfect hair. And it would allow me to make the thinking the students did visible by naming and charting their moves:

  • You thought about who was talking to whom in the dialogue
  • You thought about who was feeling what
  • You thought about who the pronouns referred to (I, we my, us, her, she)
  • You thought about the title of the book
  • You looked at the front cover for clues
  • You thought about the characters’ relationship to each other
  • You questioned each others’ thinking
  • You tested your ideas out until you found one that made sense to everyone
  • You realized that the narrator’s name was tucked into a line of dialogue

I’d then ‘step up’ the group to a text at their level that presents the same kind of problem-solving challenges as Leftover Lily did, such as Just Juice by Karen Hesse. Here’s the first three paragraphs of the book, which you’ll see requires readers to infer both who’s telling the story and what’s going on in order for it to ‘make sense’:

This text has the added challenges of unfamiliar vocabulary (truant officer) and dialect (the word “mought”), along with the fact that Juice isn’t always recognizable immediately as a name. But here again, rather than front-load this, I’d let the students wrestle with the text, stepping in only to remind them of what they did in the previous excerpt that helped them solve the same kind of problems that they’re facing now.

Once again, this process allows most students to figure out that Juice is the narrator and that she’s hiding from someone called a truant officer, who’s job it is to make sure kids get to school, which Juice doesn’t want to do for reasons still unknown. Depending on how much time that took, I’d ‘step up’ the students that same day or the next to a text above their level that posed similar problems, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which starts out like this:

This texts involves yet more challenges, among them the fact that the narrator’s name doesn’t appear until the second page and then is tucked into a line of remembered dialogue. Many students will also need to keep reading to be certain of what’s alluded to here: that no one is singing anymore because Anna and Caleb’s mother is gone. But feeling more accomplished now, they’d enter the text as problem-solving readers, on the look-out for clues that might help them figure out who’s who and what’s going on. And they’d use the same strategies that had allowed them to be successful before. For that’s what the bullet points listed above are: They are text-based strategies whose application leads to meaning more directly than typical strategies do because they keep students in the text in the active role of problem solvers.

And that’s where we want them to be.

Shoptalk for Readers

Among the many books on the shelves behind my desk is a worn copy of Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers by the master writing teacher Donald Murray. The book is a collection of quotes by writers that describe their habits and process, organized in chapters with wonderful titles like “Being Found by a Subject,” “Riding the Flow” and “Planning for Surprise.”

I discovered the book many years ago when I was working for the Teachers College Writing Project, and like other books by Donald Murray, Shoptalk became a kind of gospel, offering guidance, inspiration and a vision to those of us who wanted to ground our writing instruction in the work that real writers do. I’d bring in quotes to teachers I worked with, and together we’d create charts and mini-lessons, sharing, for example, Mark Twain’s injunction, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream,” for a lesson on show, don’t tell, and using Edward Albee’s assertion that “I write to find out what I’m thinking about,” as an invitation to students to use writing to explore, not just record, what’s on their mind. Then we’d return to those quotes when it came time to share, asking who in the room had used Mark Twain’s advice or who had discovered something new by exploring their experience and perceptions.

I loved Shoptalk for the way that even the chapter titles brought depth and life and soul to the words typically found on classroom charts outlining the steps in the writing process. And when my work began to encompass reading, too, I longed for words that would give soul and meaning to the often simplistic and reductive language I found in the charts that were everywhere in classrooms, listing comprehension strategies, the habits of good readers and the author’s purpose.

And so I turned to writers and began collecting quotes that seemed to more vividly capture the purpose and the craft of reading. Many found their way into What Readers Really Do, and some I’ve brought into classrooms. But here’s one that I recently discovered. It’s from a poem by the amazing poet Marie Howe that explores both the challenges and consolations of reading novels. I’m sharing part of it here, but if you click on the poem, it will open up in a new tab where you can read the poem as published in Boston Review in its entirety.

                                How much richer might our students’ notions of reading be if we shared this kind of shoptalk with them and learned to read from writers? For here’s the question: What is Marie Howe’s purpose?

A. To persuade

B. To inform

C. To entertain

D. All of the above

E. None of the above

The answer seems not quite as easy as pie. Nor should it be, I think, if we want our students to read thoughtfully and deeply, not just match a text up with a word.