A Tale of Two Students: More Findings from Research Conferences

Girl and boy reading book isolated on white background

Piggybacking on the other week’s post, which looked at what a student was doing with her ‘just right’ book, I share here the stories of two students, both at the same level and reading the same book to continue to explore what we can learn by using a conference to research the kinds of thinking students are bringing to texts.

MarisolThe students were two fourth grade girls who were both reading Marisol, an American Girl Today book written by Gary Soto. Both had also participated in two small groups I wrote about previously, in which I and the teachers I worked with discovered that the students couldn’t take on the work of considering what the author might be trying to show us through the details she had chosen because they were thrown for a loop by the pronouns.

With both girls I began by asking if there was anything they were working on as readers to focus the conference on the process of reading rather than the contents of the book. And when each girl looked at me askance, I followed that up by saying, “For instance, are there any questions you’re thinking about or anything in particular you’ve noticed?” That clarification enabled the first girl, Yesenia, to say, “Oh yeah, I’m trying to figure out why Marisol is moving.”

I applauded her for asking a why question, which are always great thinking tools. But not knowing whether this information was stated directly or indirectly, I’m not sure if it’s something Yesenia missed or something that hadn’t yet been revealed. So I pose another question: “Is Marisol trying to figure that out, too, or is it just you?”

“No, Marisol doesn’t know either. She’s asked her parents before, but here it is again on the top of the page,” she says, pointing to a line that reads, “Even though I didn’t know where we were moving. Or really why.

ResearchKnowing that Marisol is as much in the dark about the move as Yesenia is suggests that a reason hasn’t yet been provided. So I ask if she thinks she’s found any clues that might answer the question.

Yesenia pauses for a moment then slowly says, “No, but I do think I know how she feels. She really loves her house and her room and doesn’t want to leave it. Like here,” she says, turning back a page. “Her friend Victor wanted her to come out and play but she wanted to stay in her room—not like her other friend Becky, who has to stay inside because she’s in trouble, but because she knows she’ll have to leave it soon.”

Quickly scanning the page spread myself, I’m able to see how Yesenia has used the information to support the idea she’s developing about Marisol’s feelings. And curious to see how she processes new text, I ask her to pick up where she left off, which sends her back to the paragraph below the line she pointed to earlier.

Marisol Excerpt 1

Reading over her shoulder again, I’m aware that the paragraph holds several vocabulary challenges. But instead of expending too much time on words like ‘wallowing’ and ‘self-pity,’ neither of which she might know, she pronounces them the best she can and keeps reading to the end of the paragraph, at which point I ask her what she thinks is happening as a way of assessing how much meaning she could make despite the challenging words.

“Well, I think she’s feeling bad about moving and so she decides to practice her dancing because she knows it will make her feel better. But now I’m wondering if she’ll have to move before her big performance. That will make her even sadder.”

Yesenia has gotten the gist of the passage. And she’s connected what she just learned to what she already knows, revising and adjusting her understanding of the text as she encounters new information, which in turn yields new questions. And after naming that for her, I decide to instructionally offer a next step by saying, “I think that’s another great question to ask, along with how she deals with it, if that actually happens.” Yesenia nods her head in agreement as I move on to Melaysia, who coincidentally enough is at the same level, reading the same book.

When I ask my conference kick-off questions, Melaysia shrugs and says no; she’s not doing anything special as a reader. And so after complimenting her on her honesty, I ask her to turn to the page she’s on and read some aloud, beginning right where she left off, which is the last paragraph before the line break below:

Marisol Excerpt 2

Knowing that Melaysia has struggled with pronouns, I stop her after that paragraph to see how she’s making sense with those. “Do you know who the ‘I’ is here,” I ask, to which she replies, “That’s Marisol.” And how about the ‘she’? Do you know who that is?” “Miss Mendoza?” she says without a lot of confidence, which prompts me to ask the indispensable question: “What made you think that?”

A long silence ensues, in which Melaysia keeps her eyes focused on her lap. And so I remind her of what we discovered in our earlier group: that an ‘I’ wouldn’t talk about herself as a ‘she’, and the pronoun almost always refers to the last non-I person who’s been mentioned. Then I ask her to take another look, and this time she says, “It is Miss Mendoza.”

But when I ask her who Miss Mendoza is, she hesitates again. “I think she just stopped by,” she says, “so maybe she’s like a neighbor or something.”

maybe“Maybe’s always a good thinking word,” I say before asking if there’s anything else she thought about Miss Mendoza, in the hope that she might have noticed the word ‘student,’ which, combined with the preceding exchange of dialogue, provides a clue about Marisol’s feelings for her. But again Melaysia says nothing.

So I ask her to continue reading, which she does with a degree of fluency until she hits the word ‘enchilada,’ which she spends some time trying to sound out. When she’s finally able to pronounce the word, I ask her if she knows what it means and she says she doesn’t. And when, after reading to the end of the page, I ask her how this section connects to what she read before, she says that she’s forgotten. Spending so much mental energy on a single word made her loose the thread of a story she had only a tentative hold on to begin with.

As the teachers and I pondered the implications of these conferences, we came to some conclusions. Melaysia needed to learn how to make strategic decisions about when to read over an unknown word for the sake of holding on to the story. She also needed lots of opportunities to meta-cognitively talk about her thinking and to more deliberately draft and revise her understanding. And she could benefit from holding on to a question or wondering, as Yesenia did, which we could call a text-based strategy—i.e., a move a reader makes that helps them stick to the text and read more attentively.

Put your plan into action, words on blackboard.WIth that we had a plan of action: more small group and one-on-one work with Melaysia, maybe using an easier text until the thinking—and her confidence—took hold, and a follow-up conference with Yesenia to see if she’s able to maintain the same level of thinking as the pages accrue. It took some time to make these decisions. But having a clearer sense of what our next instructional steps could be made the time worthwhile.

6 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Students: More Findings from Research Conferences

  1. Pingback: Sorting through details: Notes on a couple transitional readers | inside the dog…

  2. Love reading the updates!!! I have a few students who claim they just don’t have many wonders when they read. One actually decided that the book he was reading didn’t give him much opportunity to wonder, so I let him know that that was powerful thinking and he drew a conclusion about himself and the book he was reading. So I helped him find something else, and he seems to be wondering a bit more. I love having the kids do the thinking, but I struggle with my role and how much to say, what to say etc. I guess it comes from years of modeling and thinking aloud and asking those leading questions, thinking the kids have to come to THE ANSWER….I am trying to ask “tell me more” or “what else are you thinking” and working on finding opportunities to “name” the skill…as state testing is in April I start to feel that “panic”. Any words of advice would be great! I feel like this just takes lots of practice and interaction with the students, which as important as it is, is so difficult for me to get to all 21….12 of which are struggling readers. Thanks so much for the blog.

    • Just so you know Sherry, there’s hardly a day where I’m not aware of walking a thin line between saying too much and saying too little—-and of how easy it is to see in hindsight what I should have or shouldn’t have said. So first, forgive yourself if you step over that line in either direction, knowing that just like the kids, anything that’s truly worthwhile doing takes lots of time and practice. I’ve been struggling myself with schools that feel that, with the emphasis so much on answers and scores, they don’t have enough time to do this work, especially as test season looms here as well. Though I’ve been making a case that not doing it—and searching for quick fixes and short cuts—hasn’t worked in the past. I wonder, though, whether in addition to asking the kids to tell you more, you might want to experiment with asking them whether what they’re thinking about one thing in the text might be connected to anything else they’ve noticed, which might help them think across pages more. Or you might use what they are thinking to set them up to read forward with more intention so that they’ll have more to say later if they can’t in the moment—kind of like helping them design a line of inquiry. And asking if there’s anything they’re confused or puzzled about can also yield more thinking.

      I also think the move you made with the student who wasn’t wondering much was great. I believe that messages like that, which implicit say that you’re a reader who’s aware of what you’re thinking and when you need more to chew on, have an accumulative affect. It raises the bar for what that reader will expect from a text, and affirms the contract between the reader and the writer—as in, I will think more if you give me more to think about, which is what I, as a reader, deserve.

      • Thank you so much for words of encouragement. It helps me refocus and get energized for my week- try to block out that testing pressure and do what I know in my heart is best for kids. I am trying anyway. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Sorting through details: Notes on a couple transitional readers

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