Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater: Some Thoughts on Teaching to the Standards

As we head into the final year before full implementation of the Common Core Standards is required by those states that are ‘racing to the top’, I sense some anxiety in the air. In meetings with teachers and in educators’ blogs questions keep popping up: Is there still a place for read aloud? Or genre studies? Or writers’ notebooks? And what about guided and independent reading? What about essential questions?

With all this uncertainty and a deadline pending (not to mention federal money), it’s tempting to jettison everything we’ve done and teach directly to the Standards, with specific lessons aimed, for instance, at determining the theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text (RL2 for 5th grade). Or we could follow the same route that has led New York City and 19 other urban school districts to sign a pact stating that since “80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis . . . aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

On the one hand, I suppose there’s some logic to this. But beyond the questions I’ve already raised about Achieve the Core’s brand of text-dependent questions—and the fact that the actual road to success is rarely a straight, direct path—the phrase ‘teach to the Standards’ sounds eerily like ‘teach to the test’ to me. And we all know how real learning suffers when we teach to the test.

I’m also reminded of these wise words from the developer of the 6 Traits approach to writing and the author of The 9 Rights of Every Writer, Vicki Spandel:

“The problem with standards is not that they aim too high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons—to help our children write with passion and touch the hearts of readers—the little things tend to fall into place anyway. We get the topic sentences and details and strong verbs we hoped to see because those little things help the writer reach her loftier goals. What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said she should, but because these writer’s skills took her where she wanted to go all along, to a place where her writing became powerful.”

I believe the same is true for readers. When we teach students to read for the ‘right reasons’—to deeply engage with a text in a way that “deepens and widens and expands our sense of life,” in the words of Anne Lamott—the Standards tend to fall into place. We get the inferences we hoped to see, not because we’ve pulled our hair out trying to teach students to infer, but because they’re actively looking for clues that might help them answer the burning questions the text has raised for them. And we get them valuing evidence, not because we told them they should, but because they’ve experienced for themselves how attending to details leads to insight .

We can see this in action in the classroom examples that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Dolike the fifth graders reading Patricia Reilly Giff‘s Pictures of Hollis WoodsBy keeping track of what they were figuring out and what they were confused or wondering about in the beginning of the book, these students developed a first draft impression of Hollis as an angry, misunderstood girl who desperately wanted a family—which, as you can see from the excerpt below, required a lot of inferring. And as they explained what made them think that, they met Reading Literature Standard 1: “Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from it.”

They also had a slew of why questions about Hollis’s behavior and circumstance, which fueled their reading and became what we might call lines of inquiry. Following these lines as they read forward, they also began to notice patterns. They saw a pattern in the way the book was structured, with italicized sections describing a picture before each actual chapter. They saw patterns formed by lines that were repeated, like “I’ll show you tough,” and patterns in the character’s actions and feelings, such as “Hollis always imagines talking to Steven in her head,” and “Hollis always thinks about the mountain—even though she tells herself not to.” And all those patterns led them again to that critical question, “Why?”

Tracking those patterns, they also noticed that some of them broke or changed, at which point they began to have hunches about what the writer might be trying to show them through those changing patterns. These hunches, which they kept revising as they read, eventually developed into interpretations of the book’s big ideas or themes. And as they considered the implication of those ideas for their own lives, they deepened and widened and expanded their sense of what makes people tick. They also incidentally met the fifth grade Reading Standards for Literature 2-6, without us teaching the Standards per se or directing them via questions to lines or passages we’d deemed important.

Given all the questions about instructional approaches stirred up by the Standards, it seems important to note that this work was grounded in balanced literacy and reading workshop. The book was done as a read aloud, with students receiving additional support through small group instruction and conferences that helped them transfer the thinking to their independent reading.

What was different was what, in the language of the Standards, we might call instructional shifts. We shifted the purpose of the read aloud from building community and enjoying a great read to exploring how readers make meaning—which inevitably created a highly engaged community of readers. We shifted the way we talked about details from asking students to distinguish important from unimportant details to asking them to consider the possible importance and meaning of the details they noticed. And we shifted our instruction from generic comprehension strategies, which too often draw students away from the text, to strategies that drew them deeper in, such as these:

© Copyright 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton from What Readers Really Do (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

What we held on to was what I like to think is the ‘baby’ in the bath: The belief that we should be teaching readers and the thinking involved in meaning making, not texts, trusting that if we do that, the students will plumb the depths of a text, read deeply and meet the Standards—and possibly even become lifelong readers who value the printed word. And that’s what I think we shouldn’t throw out, no matter what else gets tossed, if we’re serious about empowering students to truly be independent.

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.”

What We Knew by Heart: Turning Our Own Reading Practices into Curriculum

Book of Hours c. 15th century, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Borrowing again from Katie Wood Ray‘s book, What We Know by Heart, which explores how we can develop curriculum from our own experiences as writers, I want to share some of the amazingly thoughtful comments readers left in response to Allen Woodman’s short short story “Wallet” in the other week’s post. In particular, I want to try to notice and name the moves those readers made and the instructional implications of those moves for classrooms.

To begin with, every single reader who responded was deeply engaged in thinking about what particular details might mean, both individually and in relationship to the whole. They considered the significance of the fortune cookie, the father’s comment about “all oyster and no pearl,” the billfold rising up “like a dark fish,” and the puzzling line that several mentioned, “There will be time enough for silence and rest.” Sometimes they had specific ideas about what those details might be revealing about character or even theme, and sometimes they weren’t sure what to do with them. But they all entered the text assuming that the details they encountered weren’t random but had been deliberately chosen by the author to convey something more than, say, the literal contents of a wallet. And as readers, their job was to attend to those details and to question and consider their meaning, which they did by wondering and brainstorming possibilities in a way that seemed less firm or emphatic than an inference or a prediction.

I believe there are instructional implications in what these readers knew about texts and how they used strategies based on that knowledge. Katie Wood Ray calls these “curriculum chunks,” and we can turn these chunks into teaching points, which could sound like this:

  • Readers know that writers choose details deliberately to reveal both characters and the ideas or themes they’re exploring through the story.
  • Because they know that, readers do the following:
    • They attend to the details they notice, asking themselves and wondering: Why is the author telling me this? What could this possibly mean?
    • They hold onto those wonderings as they keep reading, expecting to gain more clarity as they read.
    • They consider the possible meaning of details by brainstorming, using words like ‘maybe’, ‘might’ or ‘could.’

The readers of “Wallet” also brought their knowledge of how stories work to anticipate what some called a “twist”. But interestingly enough, not a single one predicted. Instead they all tried to remain open to whatever twists and turns the writer took, letting the story unfold on its own terms, while keeping their thinking tentative and flexible, knowing that endings are often unpredictable—and are frequently better for that.

There were also none of the literal text-to-self connections we frequently hear in classrooms—that is, no stories about pick-pocketed wallets or aging fathers in Florida. Mostly readers connected with their previous experiences as readers. And the one reader who explicitly made a connection to his grandfather pushed and prodded and probed that connection, connecting it to other details and memories until it yielded an insight about the text.

Similarly while many readers talked about visualizing, they did so for specific reasons. They visualized as a way of monitoring their comprehension and as a tool to infer events that were conveyed indirectly in the text. They visualized to interpret the imagery, like the billfold rising “like a dark wish.” They also visualized as a way of emotionally engaging with the story, with virtually no mental image mentioned without the reader also thinking of what that image made them feel. And along with that inquisitive, wondering stance, “it was,” as one reader put it, “the way the text made me feel that truly supported my meaning making.”

Here, too, there are instructional implications that could be turned into teaching points:

  • Readers know that stories unfold over time in ways that aren’t always predictable, and so they try to keep their minds open and receptive, drafting and revising their understandings as they go, without clamping down on any one idea too early.
  • Readers know that it’s not enough to make a connection with a text. They explore and question their connections, using them as tools to dig deeper.
  • Readers visualize to both monitor and fix breakdowns in their comprehension and to infer events that weren’t made explicit in the text.
  • Readers also visualize to think about the imagery and engage emotionally with the text. And they use their emotional responses and ideas about the imagery to consider what the author might be trying to show them or explore through the vehicle of the story.

It’s also worth noting that no reader made a definitive claim about ‘the theme’ of the story. Perhaps they would have if I’d asked them to; but at the risk of speaking for them, I think that, as readers, they didn’t feel a need to sum up and fit all they were thinking into a single statement—yet. They were, however, all circling ideas that we could call understandings or themes. One, for instance, was trying to “reconcile the complex notion that the father might be embarrassed but also delighted at the same time,” while others kept thinking about that fortune cookie, aware that the events of the story refuted its life-is-always-the-same-old-story message. One thought the story was “at least partly about” our society’s view of the elderly, while others considered what it might be saying about father and son relationships. And having that line about silence and rest brought to my attention by a few readers, I found myself thinking about mortality and death, which seems to hover over the story as yet another layer and lens for thinking about its ideas.

My hunch is that what we each focused on says something about our individual preoccupations and concerns. And the beauty of the story is that it offered so many entryways in less than 300 words, along with the following teaching points:

  • Readers know that even short texts can’t always be boiled down to a single idea, and that there are many ways of accessing and constructing understandings based on which details the reader notices and what they bring to the text.
  • Readers don’t read to identify a theme. Rather their understanding of theme emerges from their engagement and thinking about the details of the text.
  • Readers’ understanding of a text can be enriched and developed by hearing what other readers notice and think.
  • Readers need to live and linger with multiple possibilities before committing themselves to one idea for the purpose of writing a paper.

All of these points are based on these readers’ understanding of how narratives are built. And all set strategies within the context and purpose of searching for meaning. That’s what was in these readers’ hearts. And that’s what I think should be in our teachers’ hearts as we talk to students about reading.

Heart Book c. 1550′s, The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

With many thanks to author Allen Woodman and all the readers who shared their thoughts on his story “Wallet.” Their comments can be found by clicking this link and scrolling down to the end of the post.

Using Text Sets to Help Students Build an Understanding of the World of a Book

Last week’s post, which looked at the way that well-intentioned scaffolds can sometimes undermine students’ ability to make meaning, reminded me of a 7th grade teacher I worked with several years ago. She’d designed her humanities curriculum around questions of power and how and why governments do or don’t control their citizens, and she decided to kick-off the class that year by having the students read Lois Lowry‘s The Giver.

The book was a great choice for the year’s themes. But many of her students read way below grade level, and after a day of being met by blank stares when she asked a question about the reading assignment, the teacher shifted into read-aloud mode, hoping that a fluent, dramatic reading would allow the class to comprehend a text they couldn’t navigate on their own.

The students loved the read aloud, quickly convening and settling down in the back of the room to listen. But when the teacher paused to ask questions, she was still met with blank stares. They had no ideas about what it might mean to be ‘released’, no thoughts about the rituals of sharing feelings at night and all the talk about assignments and rules. And so with discomfort, she began doing what I imagine each and every one of us has done at some point in a classroom: she kept prompting them with leading questions, pulling answers out of them like teeth. And if the answers still didn’t come, she’d tuck what she was looking for into a question—like, “Do you think it’s possible that released means killed?”—at which point you’d see light bulbs going off in the students’ heads as they entertained the idea she’d put out that they hadn’t been able to access themselves.

In my own evolution as a literacy coach, I was still a few years away from the Know/Wonder chart that Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed which, by helping students pay more attention to what they’re figuring out from a text and what they’re wondering or confused about, encourages them to read more closely and pick up more detail clues. That tool, I believe, would have helped those students focus on the questions the first page raises, such as “Why is Jonas beginning to be frightened?” and “Why was everyone so scared of a plane?” It would also have positioned them to be more attentive to details that begin to repeat and form patterns—e.g., the capitalization of jobs, like Pilots; the emphasis on naming feelings precisely; the loudspeaker voice that tells people what do; and the many, many references to rules. And those questions and patterns would, in turn, help them develop lines of inquiry and hunches about the kind of world they were in.

Back then, though, what the teacher and I both realized was that the students needed more than a fluent reader’s voice to make meaning of the text. If she wasn’t going to push and prod them—or simply spoon-feed them what they couldn’t infer—they needed time to practice the kind of thinking I shared in last week’s post as I drafted an understanding of the world of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars from the details the author gives.  And so we gathered up a handful of books, like the ones below, that were set in some future time and place, and we created stations the students would visit and rotate among. At each station they’d read a few pages with a small group or partner and consider the following questions, which we modeled with one of the books. Then they shared their ideas on chart paper to compare with other groups’ and partner’s findings.

  • Do you notice any differences between this world and ours?
  • Are there words that seem to mean something special or are capitalized or used strangely? What do you think they might mean?
  • Are there different groups of people in this world? If so, can you tell anything about them or their relationship to each other?
  • Is there anything that gives you a sense of the worlds’ rules or what they seem to believe in—even if you don’t fully understand yet?

   

At this point in my practice, I like giving students more room to attend to what they notice in a text rather than direct them to specific details through prompts like the questions above. But I continue to use text sets like this to help students see and practice how readers infer the world of a book through the author’s details—whether the text is futuristic, historical, fantasy or realistic. (And for students who need even more support, I’d use them in the kind of ‘stepped-up’ guided small group I shared in an earlier post.)

This kind of close reading inevitably makes students want to keep reading the books. And when they do, they read with more engagement and depth because they’re no longer dependent on someone else’s questions to uncover what’s suggested on the page. They also read with more confidence and sense of agency because they know what it feels like to catch the little clues that reveal the text’s deeper meaning.

Text Set Books: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy FarmerFeed by M. T. Anderson, The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbreck, The Copper Elephant by Adam Rapp, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.

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.

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: