On Shortcuts, Quick Fixes and Why They Often Don’t Work

Short Cut Sign

This spring I found myself in many classrooms—from third grade right up to twelfth—working on content area nonfiction. In each school, teachers were worried that students weren’t comprehending what they were reading, even when the information was stated explicitly. And without understanding the basic facts, it was nearly impossible for them to engage with whatever less explicit ideas the writer might be exploring or with any of the essential questions the teachers had framed their units around.

Initially many teachers saw this as a problem of the students’ background knowledge—i.e., students couldn’t comprehend what the writer was saying because they didn’t have enough prior knowledge for the information to make sense. Or they saw it as a vocabulary issue, especially in those cases where the students were either English Language Learners or were working with texts that matched someone’s insane notion of text complexity (such as the third-grade-is-the-new-seventh-grade example I shared in a recent post).

Can of WormsI don’t want to minimize the need to help students build larger and more sophisticated word banks or to have more background knowledge. But I’m also reminded of what I wrote in a post last summer: that too much emphasis on vocabulary or gaps in background knowledge may actually undermine students’ ability to become stronger, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning if we don’t know all the words and references. Plus obsessing about what students lack sometimes blinds us to what they can do, and so before I started making suggestions, I asked the teachers I was working with what kind of instruction they’d offered students and how they had done with that—which opened up another can of worms.

In almost every case, the teachers had offered students strategies for summarizing or finding the main idea, which often involved looking for topic sentences or repeated key words, as many a classroom chart advises. Some also taught students how to use text features to predict what information they’d find, which we could also call a strategy. These strategies, however, were in fact shortcuts; they offered students ways of synthesizing a text without actually reading it carefully and thoughtfully. And as the teachers shared anecdotes and student work, what seemed clear was that too often those strategies simply wound up backfiring.

In the case of using text features, for instance, students frequently became wedded to predictions they’d made based on pictures and headings, and with those in mind, they ignored any parts that didn’t match their predictions. Main idea and summarizing strategies, on the other hand, often sent students on scavengers hunts—or what SmartBrief blogger Fred Ende calls “Seek & Find” missions in a great post on readers versus scavengers—with students searching for key words or topic sentences without really thinking about how those words or sentences were connected.

Swiss CheeseRecognizing that the very strategies they’d offered might actually be interfering with real understanding, many of the teachers agreed to change tacts and focus on questioning instead—not the kind that would send students back to the text on more scavenging expeditions, but questions that would invite them to wrestle with the concepts and information an author presents. We also wanted them to become more aware of what I started calling ‘the holes in the cheese’—that is, the places where a nonfiction author doesn’t spell everything out, but rather relies on us, as readers, to connect the dots of facts together to figure something out. And to do this, we needed to study the texts we were giving to students, like this one from a fourth grade science textbook that I looked at with an ESL teacher named Cybi, to better understand how the author presented concepts and where the holes in the cheese were.

Mineral Textbook Page 1

In terms of concepts, we saw that the author explicitly described what a mineral was in the second paragraph. But by focusing on repeated or highlighted words, as Cybi had taught them to do, she wasn’t sure if her students would fully grasp the relationship or connection between minerals and rocks—i.e., that minerals were in rocks—which was exactly what happened when I modeled the shared reading later that day. Using the text features to predict the chapter’s content, the students concluded that minerals must be kinds of rocks. Acknowledging that they didn’t know that for sure, they agreed to let me reframe that as a question, which I asked them to hold in their heads as we read. But even with that, they glossed over the word ‘in’ until the very end when, with the question still unanswered, they went back and reread the beginning. At that point hands shot up around the room, and after they shared what they’d discovered, I noticed and named for them how paying attention to small words like ‘in’ had really helped them understand the connection and relationship between the more prominent words. And understanding how those words and facts were connected was really, really important.

We also wanted them to understand the concept of properties and how they helped scientists classify and differentiate minerals. Drawing on her knowledge of her students once again, Cybi thought they might be able to understand that based on the examples on this page and the next. But we both thought we detected a hole in the cheese in this page’s last two sentences where a reader would need to connect the information about hardness and scratching and apply the concept of properties to infer that calcite is harder than gypsum. And so we decided that this would be a good place to stop and ask a question, which I framed during the shared reading this way:

I want to pause here for a moment because I think there’s something the author’s not telling us that we might need to figure out. We know that hardness is a property and that properties help scientists tell minerals apart. We also know that scratching is a way of testing hardness and that gypsum is easier to scratch than calcite. But the author doesn’t come right out and say which mineral is harder, gypsum or calcite. I think he’s left that for us to figure out. So turn and talk. What do you think? Based on what the author has told us, which mineral do you think is harder and why?

This kind of question asked students to synthesize and apply information, not to simply retrieve it. And it asked them to actually think in a way that allowed them to construct understanding, not just consume and regurgitate information, as scavenger hunts often do. Ultimately, though, we wanted the students to be in charge of the questioning, and to that end we combined teacher-created questions, like the one above, that put students in problem-solving mode, with open invitations for the students to share whatever they found confusing or curious. And after I shared my holes-in-the-cheese metaphor, we began asking students if they thought there were things the writer hadn’t fully explained—i.e., holes in the cheese—then gave them time to figure those things out based on what the writer did say.

And as for those shortcuts: In the end, they weren’t so short after all, as they often took students away from real reading and real understanding, helping them, perhaps, to practice a skill but not really engage in deep thinking.

No Shortcuts

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.

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.