The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

I was inspired this week by another series of blog posts I stumbled on recently, which (if I’ve gotten the chain of inspiration right) Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres of the original Two Writing Teachers adapted several years ago from the wonderful scrapbooking blogger Ali E. The posts were all in response to a challenge called One Little Word, which asks teachers to think about a single word they want to hold on to in the new year to help them stay focused and grounded. And whether it’s Dana Murphy sharing how the word float found her or Tara Smith recounting the journey that led her to embrace the word pause, these posts once again demonstrate the richness and depth of teachers’ thinking. They also reminded me of a word I’d been meaning to write about for a while: huh. It’s a word that’s often accompanied by a scrunched up face or a quizzical look indicating disbelief or confusion. And like the word yet, which I wrote about before, I think it’s an under-rated but powerful word.

14 Cows for America coverIt came up, for instance, in a demonstration lesson I was doing with a class of third graders in Staten Island reading the book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. The book, which is listed as an exemplar text for grades 2-3 in the Common Core’s Appendix B, is about a Maasai village in Kenya which gives fourteen cows to America as a gift of friendship and compassion after hearing about 9/11. And I’d chosen it specifically to see how much students could get of out of a text deemed complex without the kind of prompting and scaffolding that’s offered in many a teacher’s guide and online lesson plans.

The teacher’s guide the book’s publisher puts out, for example, tells teachers to ask a series of before-reading questions to ascertain how much students already know about 9/11 and Kenya, and then to transition to the book by saying, “Today we’re going to learn about a small village in Africa and how they were affected by the events of 9/11.” Setting a context for reading this way by helping students access their background knowledge then giving them a quick introduction to the book is a common practice. And the teachers observing me were a bit worried about what the class might not know. As it was, Staten Island had borne many losses on September 11, but it happened before these third graders were born. And while the class would be studying Kenya later that year, the teachers all thought the students’ geographic knowledge might be limited at best.

But wanting the students to learn not only about the content of the book, but how readers make meaning, I skipped the pre-reading activities and just held up the book and read the title, at which point I heard a huh. It came from a boy sitting in the front whose face was, Huh? 2indeed, all scrunched up, and seeing him it seemed to me that huh was actually an appropriate response for a book with that title and cover. I said so to the boy and then asked if others felt the same, at which point hands went up in the air. I then I asked them to say more about the huh, and they spoke to the fact the title mentioned America but the cover illustration didn’t look like that to them. Plus there were no cows anywhere to be seen.

Unpacking the huh led the class to form their first two questions, Why is the book called 14 Cows for America? and Where does the book take place? They thought they’d found the answer to the second question when we got to the title page where two giraffes had been added to the cover’s scene, and that made them think the book took place in Africa. And when, having already noticed a reference to New York and September, we came to the following page, several children found themselves wondering whether the story the main character tells his tribesmen had to to do with 9/11.


In each case, the students drew on their background knowledge not because we’d explicitly asked them to but because they’d been trying to sort through their confusion. Put another way, they’d drawn on the strategy strategically in order to understand what had puzzled them. And the huh was the engine that drove them to both notice those details and reach for the strategy, confirming what the writer and thinker Tom Peters said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

With the connection between Africa and America now established, the students turned their attention to the cows. By the end of the book they felt they finally understood the title, but they continued to wrestle with why the tribesmen gave the cows and especially what purpose the cows were meant to serve. And that confusion drove them deeper into the heart and the message of book.

Their path there, however, was not straight and easy. The first student who attempted to answer those questions drew on his background knowledge again to wonder if the tribesman thought that the cows could be used in the war on terror. When I asked if there was anything in the text that made him think that, he cited the line from the page below about the Maasai having once been fierce warriors, and many other students agreed, pointing out that in some of the illustrations the cows were shown with horns, which they thought could be used as weapons.


As this idea took hold of the room, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong. I wound up asking a variation on one of the questions Jeff Wilhelm offers in his great book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: “Did anyone notice any other details that might suggest another reason for the Maasai to give the cows to America?” The students turned and talked about this, and when we came back together to share out, one girl said she still wasn’t sure what the reason could be, but she didn’t think they’d send the cows to war, because, as she put it, “They love their cows. Why would they want them to get hurt or killed?” And at this point another powerful word could be heard in the room as the class mulled over this student’s words and added her thoughts to the group’s thinking: hmm.

Like the seventh graders I wrote about earlier who wrestled with what really happened in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s story “Dozens of Roses,” I think these students initially latched on to an explanation that was in their reach, and the huh’s and hmm’s opened the door to a possibility they’d never envisioned before—that the Masaai gave America the cows as a symbollic gift of compassion. Of course, to fully get that, they had to read the text again. But they did that not because of some pre-determined close reading protocol, but once again because they wanted to answer the questions their huh’s and hmm’s raised. And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?


34 thoughts on “The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

    • Thanks, Emily. Listening is so very important, as is digging into the students’ responses rather than rushing headlong into ‘our’ lesson. So, yes, “Let’s listen” can be the responsive teacher’s motto!

  1. You had me at “huh” and by the time I got to the end I wanted to” wiggle my nose” and wisk myself immediately to your side to watch you at work with kids doing this fabulous teaching and learning.
    My favorite line is the last, though, and thank you for sharing Joshua Block’s comment about educating being about authentic experiences for thinkers and creators. Truly: WHY would we ever NOT want to do that?
    TERRIFIC. Huh and Hmmmm. Love this.
    (I often use the learning to ride a bike analogy with kids: Try, try again, you don’t get it right the first time, you get some support when you need it, once you’ve got it you’ve got it for life though you might get rusty and need a little more practice. Kind of like re-reading, getting a little idea going, wobble a bit, get some support, keep going etc. and once you are a reader, go on long journeys!)
    “And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?”

  2. Very cool! I loved how, by going right to the story itself, you left open a space for kids to wonder about it. That short, exhaled word –“huh?”– inflates the desire to know more, which, extending the metaphor beyond reason, takes to the air on its own journey. I suppose the desire to know more, to make sense of something odd is all there is when it comes to learning, really.

    So interesting that when I read 14 Cows to my third graders last year, they had a similar puzzled response, and very little background knowledge about Africa or 9-11. They also had naive “jump to conclusions” responses based on what was close to them, or something bright and shiny in the story that caught their attention and caused them to put together pieces. (I wasn’t as skillful as you at layering another possibility onto the first one presented; this is a strive-for goal of mine!) But, being rural Iowans, they did know cows, and it never crossed their minds that these cows might become fighting machines. 🙂

    • To huh and hmmm, we could add your wow as place to start thinking. But I’m grappling with what to call those conclusions kids come up with that have some logic & text evidence in them but don’t take into account the whole text—-maybe text-to-self conclusions? And so funny about your students and cows! Just goes to show how impossible it is to leave ourselves out of the text. And I agree that that need to know is at the heart of learning, but that means we do have to leave space for kids to curious or confused.

      • Yes! Text to self conclusions might just be it. On a related note, I’ve been thinking a lot about how some aspects of learning math, like reading, require learners to hold several items in one’s head at the same time before coming to a conclusion about it. For example, it’s tough to help kids learn that the same shape (a square) can also have many other names, depending on what attributes one is considering. The more attributes to hold in mind, the harder it is to conceptualize. I’ve wondered whether the rush to conclusions might represent the way our minds work; that flash of insight resolves some kind of internal “conflict” we’ve encountered, or is simply pleasing to recognize. If that’s true, then this whole living with messiness that you are talking about is a pretty valuable habit of mind to learn and to practice in itself. What a valuable opportunity, this stepping back to consider and reconsider, to explore and to probe, we can offer to ourselves and our to students. And yet another way that reading and thinking together can help us to grow.

        Thank you so much for this post.

      • Finally catching up with comments, and this reminded me of a morning in June many years ago when I looked out the window and saw my small patch of grass covered with white. Trying to make sense of that, my mind immediately went to snow, and it took a few seconds for the question about the likelihood of snow in June to kick in. Turns out there was a red-tailed hawk in my pear tree that had apparently eviscerated a pigeon in my yard, which never ever had happened before. But I think my mind did exactly what you’re talking about: it rushed to a conclusion to resolve a conflict automatically. And only after I questioned the thought was I able to take in more information (like the fact that the white stuff was feathers, not flakes). But I also think that too much of our system focuses on quick answers (e.g., timed standardized tests), and I think things change when kids really feel that we value deliberation.

  3. In readalouds, allowing students to take the lead in questioning empowers them to continue that questioning work in their own independent reading, too. It’s a great teacher who allows the ‘huh’ to drive the conversation. Love hearing about your example! Thank you.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Linda, about the connection between read aloud and independent reading. In the read aloud they actually get to see how much more than can understand if they follow their curiosity or confusion, and I think knowing the pay-off, versus just being taught the strategy of question, makes it much more likely for them to try it themselves in their independent books—and it gives us another place to start in a conference (i.e., by asking kids what they’re curious or confused about).

  4. Thank you Vicki. A point that stood out especially is that the inquiry process is not straight and easy. It is messy, and so we must let our students safely enter the muck. It can be difficult to know how much to intervene, especially when students seem to be veering far off course. The questioning you did adapted from Jeff Wilhelm’s book seemed like a nice way to gently guide students toward considering more details before drawing conclusions, thus allowing them to arrive to more logical conclusions on their own.

    • Letting kids—and ourselves—muck around seems so important. But I know that it can also feel scary because you can’t always control where the mucking around goes. I’ve been thinking about writing a post about what I call ‘steering the ship’ for a while, and your comment and others make me think the perhaps the time is now, since I think it’s important for teachers to have a few moves up their sleeve.

  5. You’ve done it again! You speak with honesty and detail and I always want to hear what you have to say. Thank you for taking the time to share your thinking and teaching. We are all the better for it!

    • Thanks so much, Pat! Of course, what was harder than getting the kids to circle and interpret the heart of the book was getting some of the teachers will to take that plunge into the unknown. The ones who did quickly discovered that their students could do far more than they thought they could. But others were hampered by their school’s expectation that every lesson be accompanied by some kind of assessment to measure the day’s learning, which often led to checklist lessons and thinking. But . . . I feel a little change in the air and hope you do, too, at 137.

  6. Great blog post and sums up so many things I’ve been thinking recently. Too often we jump to fix the ‘huhs’ without taking the time to unpack them, tease them out and give students supports and tools to make sense of them.

    Thanks for the post – will be definitely using it in my coaching this year.

    • So glad it was useful, Gill. So often we do jump in and try to solve what we see as a problem, rather than letting the kids solve it themselves, which I believe they’re capable of doing in age-appropriate ways if we give them time and space. It’s often hard, though, for teachers to resist that urge to rescue kids, so I’d curious to know how it goes with the teachers you coach.

  7. Vicki,
    I so love that you shared that . . . ” I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong.” It’s so easy to literally get stuck in the mud with a group of students who are totally engrossed in the work! Gently refocusing with a question rather than a “tone of voice” that screams, “You are wrong!” allows the conversation and the learning to go forward!

    Stepping back from a text to let the students guide the learning is hard. . . It is often easier to “tell” than to allow the students to work through the process. YET, if the goal is to have students independently complete the tasks, the work HAS to be shifted to the students!

    Another book and more learning to ponder! Thanks so much for both!

    • Perhaps it’s not coincidental that you & Julieanne noticed the same line. Just like pushing into the huh, the two of you and a few other responders have made me think that I need to push more into the discomfort and explore how to make that not such a scary thing, which I think can happen if you feel like you have a few moves up your sleeve. And I love the idea of building a blog post on readers’ responses! So thanks in return for the thoughtful comment.

  8. Vicki,
    Like Fran, I so appreciate that moment you shared of what now? And the smooth move…what else might be here? Got to tattoo that one on my forearm.

    Our plans seem foiled when students throw an unexpected curve and go the wrong way. That messiness of the unexpected is so difficult to manage. Maybe we need to build in messiness, expect it. Perhaps this will allow for students to notice, expect and tolerate confusion on their own. Teach the messy process more. More about the huh? and less about the got it, now do it. Perhaps this just trains students to get the quick, surface idea rather than let the pot of confusion boil and steep. Love this line: If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention. Thanks, your work keeps me adjusting mine!

    • Love the phrase “let the pot of confusion boil and steep.” Reminds me of a post someone put up a link to on facebook or twitter ( It’s about the need to recognize that ideas sometime need to incubate before they’re carved in stone. And while, he was talking about incubating for writing, like so many things, it seems true in reading as well—and for that matter, teaching. So here’s to incubating ideas and making messiness the new normal!

  9. Vicki, I had a similar experience recently with a group of third graders. After reading Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn, one girl asked “But why was she happy?” That question was all we needed to launch an in-depth discussion to find the answer to her question. We reread parts of the texts closely, the students discussed their ideas with their partners and we came back together and had more discussion about their ideas. Not only did the kids figure out why she was happy, but they had done a nice job going back into the text to find evidence to support their thinking. These were all objectives I had going into the lesson, but, for the most part, I let the kids lead the way and had “an authentic experience…as thinkers and creators.” Thanks for sharing your insights about this process!

    • It seems so important to realize that we can actually meet our objectives by setting the stage for students to question, think deeply, and talk through ideas, rather than teaching directly to our outcomes. I think it’s only fear of losing control that stands in our way—and makes us prey for publishing conglomerates who tell us they’ll take care of that. And so excited to have a new book to check out! I’m curious to see why she’s happy, too.

  10. Huh??? I do love that expression my kids wear when they’re thinking this: wrinkled forehead, furrowed brows -signs of thinking at work. Such a great post, Vicki, encouraging us to allow our kids the time and space to puzzle things out for themselves, and to arrive at answers their own way. Thank you!

    • Those are definitely signs of thinking—as is (at least sometimes) giggling or groaning. Something’s going on in kids’ head when they respond that way, and I think it behooves us, to use your OLW, pause and listen to what’s underneath that.

    • Thanks so much, Ruth, for stopping by and commenting. I’m clearly a johnny-come-lately to the One Little Word challenge, which so inspired this post. But I think the word I want to hold onto is messy. How much would be different in classrooms if only we thought of messiness as the ideal, not the thing to avoid!

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