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.”

Matching Practice to Purpose: To Read or Not To Read a Book’s Back Cover

Piggyback by Robert Duncan (used with permission of the artist)

Whether I’m in a bookstore or library or even online at amazon, I always read back cover blurbs when I’m in the market for a book. And I always encourage students to do so when they’re looking for a new read as well. But when I’m the one choosing a text for, say, a read aloud or a small group, I don’t automatically do it because I usually want students to construct their own understanding of the text, not piggyback on another reader’s interpretation. And I don’t want them to ever think that there’s a single ‘right’ take on a text that others have and they don’t.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at what happened in a second grade room I was in the other day as I helped a group of teachers launch an author study of Tomie dePaola. Given the number of English Language Learners in the school, I’d decided to kick-off the unit with the almost wordless picture book Andy, which I thought everyone could access. The book is about a young child who, while searching for playmates, encounters a group of older kids who have all the earmarks of bullies (or, as the students said, were ‘bad guys’). And I began, as I usually do by introducing a text-based Know/Wonder chart as a means of keeping track of what we were learning and what we were wondering about as we drafted and revised our understanding of the story as we read.

Then we looked at the cover, not to predict (which I also don’t typically do), but to begin the process of thinking about what we knew at the point and what we wondered—and a heated discussion immediately erupted.

“There’s a boy named Andy,” one student said, to which I asked my standard follow-up question aimed to shed light on student thinking: “What made you think that?”

“Because Andy’s a boy’s name,” he said, pointing to a boy named Andy beside him on the rug.

“But he’s wearing pink,” another student said, “and that makes me think it’s a girl.”

“And the shoes and that green thing. Those look like girl stuff,” another student added on.

“Or maybe it’s back in the old days,” said another, “and that’s what boys wore back then.”

They batted ideas back and forth and then we continued reading, with the question of whether Andy was a boy or girl remaining unanswered right to the end. Then I asked the students to turn and talk about what they thought Tomie dePaola might be trying to show us or get us thinking about through Andy’s story, and I hunkered down with a few students to hear what they had to say.

One pair talked movingly about how the story made them think how wrong it was to take someone else’s things, which the ‘bad guys’ had done, while another group thought that if that ever happens, you have to stand up and take your things back the way that Andy did. But while I was listening, one of the students borrowed the book and proceeded to read the back cover.

 “I knew it,” he said. “Andy’s a boy. And the book is about learning letters.”

It had never occurred to me or the teachers that Andy couldn’t read. Nor had any of us seen the book as either a phonics lesson or a story about winning. Yet many of the students were ready to chuck all the thinking they’d done out the window and adopt the blurb writer’s take—and all of the teachers were looking at me to see what I’d do next.

So I asked everyone to turn their eyes back to me, and I told them the truth: that the person who wrote the blurb was just one reader whose thinking was no better or right than theirs, so long as their ideas came from the details Tomie dePaola had provided, which they clearly had. “In fact,” I said, “the blurb writer missed something that we noticed, that Tomie dePaola never makes it clear whether Andy’s a boy or a girl, and maybe he did that for a reason. Maybe he made it confusing because he wanted us to consider something that we couldn’t if we knew for sure. So I want you to turn and talk one last time about why Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear whether Andy was a boy or a girl.”

Many of the students seemed puzzled—by my questions as much as by dePaola’s choice. But one girl raised her hand when we came back to share and directed the class to this page, at which point Andy has reclaimed the letters the big kids took and is heading home.

“Maybe,” she said, “Tomie dePaola wants us to know that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl. You’re important no matter what.”

“Yeah,” said her partner. “And no one should ever take your things even if you’re little or a girl.”

I asked the class if they thought that was possible—that Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear just so we’d think something like that—and many students nodded their heads. Then I ended the session by applying that idea to what had just happened with the back cover, telling them that their own thoughts were just as important as the thoughts of the blurb writer, with the meaning they made no less correct because they were smaller or younger.

Experiences like this have made me believe that if you want your students to fully engage in the process of meaning making with a text that you’ve chosen, reading the back cover is counter-productive. It’s another way of front-loading information and providing a reader with access to the text without actually grappling with it.  And for many students, the back cover becomes a crutch that encourages passive reading, while reinforcing the dangerous idea that there’s a single ‘right’ way to see and interpret a book.

I want students to be confident readers, able to stand on their own two feet and construct their own understanding. Of course, once they’ve done that, I might invite them to hear other interpretations. But they need to know that their ideas are as valid as any other readers, provided they’re constructed from the bottom-up from the building blocks of the text’s details.

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.