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.

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

  1. I really love the quote from Anne Lamott, “deepens and widens and expands our sense of life” as it relates to working with children in a Reggio Inspired School. My understanding of the philosophy and practice in the Preschools of Reggio Emilia is that ALL they do is in the context of striving to “deepen, widen, and expand children’s sense of life.” For some reason, I am also reminded of this quote: ” A …school space is a learned community where mind and sensibility are shared. It is a place to learn together about the real world, and about possible worlds of the imagination. It must be a place where the young discover the uses of the mind, of imagination, of materials, and learn the power of doing these things together.” Jerome Bruner
    I am looking forward to time together in Reggio Emilia, to learn more not only about the preschools there, but how we can be inspired by their work and translate it in our schools. As a Preschool devotee ( but ex-third-grade teacher) I look forward to a different perspective from those of you who work with older students.

    • Thanks, Patty. I love this quote, too–especially because it includes the world of the imagination, which seems at such risk in some of the CCS implementation models–despite the fact that imagination is critical for innovation. I think the study group will be a place where we, too, can learn about the real world and possible worlds of the imagination. And it should be thrilling to do these things together!

  2. In my seventh grade reading classes we are sharing “Walk Two Moons” as a read aloud. It is the first time I have used the approach that you and Dorothy Barnhouse describe in “What Readers Really Do.” We are just a few days into the novel, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how well these students (all ability ranges) are noticing details and beginning to make solid inferences. It can be difficult to keep my mouth shut when they don’t notice what I want them to, but for the most part I’ve been able to refrain from jumping in. Again, early days, and plenty of challenges ahead: but I really like teaching this way.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this, Vic! It still astounds me how the simple act of setting kids up to keep track of what they’re noticing and wondering automatically gets them doing the kinds of thinking, like inferring, that we’ve struggled to teach them to do for years. But the challenge is always letting them wrestle without intervening too much, which is why I hold on to this quote from Randy Bomer: “Each day I have to reinvent the discipline—and myself in the discipline—to be less concerned with what the students are supposed to get and more concerned with what the students can makewith the materials they already have.” The payoff happens when the students start noticing things that you hadn’t and then make something insightful out of it—that, and the fact that they’re actually excited and exhilarated about reading.

      • Thank you for the Randy Bomer quote – I’ll tape it up on the bulletin board beside my desk. I think that one reason I like “What Readers Really Do” so much is that for years I’ve been doing pieces of what you suggest, but I had never put it together in a larger theoretical framework. It seems so obvious – now that I’ve seen it laid out. And the one thing I forgot to mention: it is just plain more fun to teach this way!

      • ME TOO!!!! I couldn’t have said it better myself!!

        “I think that one reason I like “What Readers Really Do” so much is that for years I’ve been doing pieces of what you suggest, but I had never put it together in a larger theoretical framework. It seems so obvious – now that I’ve seen it laid out. And the one thing I forgot to mention: it is just plain more fun to teach this way!”

      • This was the second time this week, Sherry, that your name came up in my inbox, as Heinemann kindly forwarded on to me & Dorothy a great response to the book you sent them. It’s so very rewarding to know that the book is doing what we wanted it to do, both for teachers & students. And as for keeping your mouth shut, just remember to keep trying but do forgive yourself when you can’t stop the urge to share something that you see and they don’t, as that, of course, sometimes happens. What’s important is to not suggest that you’re right and they’re wrong—and to let the students know when they’ve informed and enriched your own understanding, which is one of the wonderful payoffs of this work.

  3. I LOVE “What Readers Really Do”!! Like Vic above, I have also been striving to get kids to think on their own about what they read, and feeling more and more uncomfortable about those “leading” questions. I am so excited to teach reading again, and I can already see more excitement about reading. It is a bit daunting and very hard to keep my mouth closed but I am working very hard to do so. We did “Emma Kate” by Patricia Polocco and I was amazed how easily the kids caught the twist at the end….but even more so how one of my fourth grade girls suggested the very twist only a few pages into it!!! I could go on and on…..but thanks for your book and your blog.

    • Sherry and Vic. Like you, I love “What Readers Really Do.”

      I had a similar experience to yours, Sherry, but at the third grade level and while reading the book, “Grandfather’s Journey”. I’m going to tell a bit of story so you can get a sense of how it felt for me and for the kids. I guess this is why we teach, huh? 🙂

      The children in our classroom had already noticed the details in the story about an adventurous man leaving home, one who saw many, many wonders, and fell in love with the New World. Just after the birth of his daughter had caused him to think about his own childhood and to long to return “home” again, one child wondered aloud: “I think I see what is going to happen. I’ll bet he won’t be really happy in Japan and he will move back to the New World.”

      Of course, as it turns out, that child was wrong in the literal sense, but absolutely correct in the sense of the story, for the Grandfather was “happy” in Japan, and Allen Say (as the narrator) actually did return “home” to a CA that he never had visited except through the stories of his grandfather. The ending, then, was that much more poignant because the “truth” was even better than the predication.

      After the story I asked this child why he thought what he thought, what had led him to that thought. It turns out that he had noticed the pattern of the grandfather’s wonder at his travels and the use of the word longing, and he’d noticed the small connection to cycles of life that Say used to call attention to the longing for childhood that Grandfather had felt at the birth of his daughter.

      What Vicki’s book gave us was a way to focus our attention as readers on patterns in details, even to the point of words that were used over and over again, to help these young readers see how authors create meaning. Just being able to focus on something helps one notice it!

      True, not everyone could do that. But the fact that one could — even two and three — helped convince more that they could do that, too. I’m looking forward to more reading and thinking.

      • I’m not sure what’s better, hearing these amazing classroom stories or watching teachers connect and talk about the work! Thanks, all three of you, for sharing!

  4. Vicki,

    I love, love, LOVE your book. I read it over the summer and have been rereading it this fall. This year my role shifted from being a fifth grade classroom teacher to being a 5th grade reading teacher. I pull my students out 3x a week for 40 minutes.

    I am struggling a bit with how to apply what I learned from your book to my new setting. I think it would be difficult to read a chapter book with the kids, since I only see them 3x a week. Instead, am trying to think of picture books that have patterns that the kids could notice. The two examples teachers shared above helped me. (thank you)

    The expectation (of course) is for me to do some version of guided reading with the students and have them doing the reading (silently). Perhaps they could read silently and then we could pull back together to do the charting. I would love to hear any thoughts you may have.


    • I’m actually planning a post on guided reading to put up sometime this fall, but in the meantime, here’s some thoughts. I think traditional F&P style guided reading looks at two things: fluency (as the teacher asks individual students in the group to quietly read out loud to them) and comprehension, which is generally assessed after everyone finishes reading, rather than constructed as students read. There’s also often a fair amount of pre-teaching/warm-up activities, which cuts into actual reading time and, especially if they include pictures walks, lets the kids ‘access’ the text without actually ‘reading’ it. If you’re expected, however, to do that kind of guided reading, you could do as you suggested: chunk the text and ask the students to read it independently, then stop to have them share what they noticed and what they made of that. Your follow up question can be “What made you think that?” which will give you a great window on the kids’ thinking. The only thing that will be hard to do is assess their fluency—though I’ll go out on a limb and say that deeper reading should trump concerns about fluency—unless a students’ lack of fluency is impacting their comprehension. That certainly happens, but so does the reverse: students who are fluent readers but who can’t make much of what they’ve read.

      As for picture books, I think there are many out there that will do the trick, including other books by Patricia Polacco (Pink and Say and The Butterfly come to mind). Smoky Night and A Picnic in October by Eve Bunting are also great, as is The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi and The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson. Other non-picture book options are short stories from collections by Gary Soto, Cynthia Rylant and Avi. In fact, being a believer in ‘seek and you shall find,’ my hunch is that if you look at books and stories you think would be great meaning-wise for 5th graders, you’ll find patterns in it.

      So . . .good luck! Let us all know how it goes!

  5. Vicki,

    Thank you so much for your reply. My district is serious about maximizing the amount of time kids spend reading, so I am not required to do pre-reading activities. Ninety percent of my students fall down on comprehension when assessed, not fluency. The students who do need fluency work are pulled at a separate time and I will do repeated readings with them (1:1).

    I think I will begin each lesson with reading a quick poem together (great for fluency). We can build a collection slowly and revisit favorites. Then I will share a text, chunk the reading as you suggested, and allow the children to build the meaning together.

    I love your stepped up lessons too! I will incorporate those at some point. I think they are a great way to help kids move from one band to the next.

    It was so thoughtful of you to take the time to reply. Thank you again. 🙂


    • Michelle,
      It is too bad that the kids have to read their books silently and then talk. Last year I discovered some real value in having kids share their thinking “in the moment” when my third graders read some of Kazu Kibuishi’s AMULET series in guided reading groups. Since I only had two copies of each book, three or four kids shared a single copy; they HAD TO read out loud if they wanted to read the books at all. The conversations that came from those books, read aloud in a round robin fashion none-the-less, blew me away. Using just the simple know/wonder chart, and the idea that patterns matter and are intentional, the kids had the kind of discussions that I search for in my own life! My role was to referee, provide incidental vocabulary instruction, and name when something happened so they could learn to use those thoughts again.

      What that admittedly poor setup inadvertently added was that the students felt very free to stop the story to notice details in the writing and pictures as they read. In Vicki’s language, the students became very good at “reading forward and thinking backward” because they had their combined brainpower noticing stuff that any one person might have missed on his or her own. They definitely benefited from immediately seeing how others were thinking about the text. It was fun for me to get a window into their thinking, too. The transparency benefited everyone.

      Unfortunately, we broke several “rules” of guided reading, including rules about no round robin reading, and no reading out loud. I’m not advocating round robin reading in all or even most cases, nor do I think reading silently is wrong, but I discovered that sometimes breaking the rules works out even better than okay. Sigh…

  6. Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You helped me remember to trust my “teaching instinct” and not worry about expectations that I teach a certain way. 🙂


  7. Pingback: A Close Look at Close Reading | To Make a Prairie

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