Making Room for Thinking in the New Reading Wars


Watching the news these days is depressing as, whether it’s Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, Ferguson or our dysfunctional Congress, the whole world seems enmeshed with conflicts. And here, on the literacy home front, we seem to be in the midst of a new round of reading wars, with Balanced Literacy and ‘just right’ books being pitted again Achieve-the-Core-style close reading methods and complex texts the same way that phonics was set in opposition to Whole Language way back in the 1970’s.


© 2013 Alejandro Giraldo, illustrator of The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments (New York: Jasper Collins Publishers). Reprinted with the illustrator’s permission.

Just as then, this either-or mentality isn’t terribly helpful, nor is it always accurate. In fact, all of these this-versus-that positions seem like examples of a particular kind a reasoning flaw called the false dichotomy or dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy. This flaw in logic appears in arguments when an author presents a reader with only two opposing alternatives without any acknowledgement, let alone consideration, of other options or shades of gray. And, in fact, there are all sorts of other options. In many a classroom, for instance, phonics instruction co-exists with various whole language approaches—and no teacher or child has yet died. Balanced Literacy can meet the objectives of the both the Common Core Standards and close reading as the two lessons I compared in “Weighing in on Balanced Literacy” demonstrated. And in both their recent blog post and their fabulous article in this month’s Reading Today, “Break Through the Frustration: Balance vs. All-or-Nothing Thinking,” Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris push back on what many have framed as a choice between complex texts and ‘just right’ level books with this sound advice:

“To avoid the educational equivalent of scurvy and the whiplash that comes from the constant pendulum shift, we suggest moving from ‘either/or’ conversations about instructional- and frustration level reading to ‘both’ conversations.'”

There’s also something key that’s left out of all these this-text-or-this-approach-versus-that talk: Thinking. What kind of thinking are we asking or setting up students to do regardless of the texts or approach? Is it identifying text structures or using more clues to figure out unknown vocabulary as the two lessons I shared in that earlier post did? Or are we Main Idea Google Searchreally asking students to consider a text’s meaning at both the literal and thematic level, whether it’s a quantitatively measured complex text or a ‘just right’ book? And what kind of thinking are we engaged in ourselves when we create those lessons? Are we filling in the boxes of lesson planning templates with Standard numbers and objectives or searching google for a lesson on, say, the main idea (which yielded 1,770,000 results in .53 seconds)? Or are we thinking deeply about the texts we’re putting in front of our students to better understand how a reader actually determines the themes of that text through its specific details?

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether we’d be in this whole Common Core/complex text pickle if we always set students up for deeper thinking instead of practicing skills or strategies that don’t necessarily lead to closer reading and more insightful meaning making. But that means that rather than investing in supposedly Common Core-aligned curriculum and training sessions on creating text-dependent questions, we would have needed to give teachers more time and space to be readers—deep, close and thoughtful readers who authentically think about how specific texts are put together and the kind of demands they place on a reader. And of course, we didn’t.

For a long time now I’ve believed that building our own capacity as readers is the key to helping our students become deeper thinking readers, too. And that belief informs much that I do, from offering occasional read alongs on the blog to starting workshops by asking teachers to read a text not as teachers, but as readers, as I did last week when I had the great privilege of working with coaches and teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s South schools. And so I was utterly thrilled to learn about a keynote speech Lucy Calkins gave at the opening of one of this summer’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institutes, where in her inimitable stirring and raise-the-bar way she said this: “To lift the level of your teaching, you must work on your own reading . . . [you must] try to outgrow yourself as a reader.”

Reading Today CoverWhat’s fascinating, though, is that Timothy Shanahan, one of the key proponents of the Standards and the author of another ‘just right’ book bashing article that also can be found in this month’s Reading Today, says more or less the same thing. In his clearly frustrated post, “Why Discussions of Close Reading Sound Like Nails Scratching on a Chalkboard,” he suggests that rather than “signing up for a workshop in ‘How to Teach the Close Reading Lesson,'” teachers would “be better off signing up for a Great Books discussion group,” which he likens to the a “reading version of the Writer’s Workshop approach to professional development” where teachers write to become better teachers of writing.

And that makes me wonder about what could happen if we focused on what we have in common rather than on how we differ: the need to carve out time and space for teachers to deeply read together and then apply what they learned from those experiences to design instruction that helps students grow into close and thoughtful readers. Perhaps then we wouldn’t need to create these false choices between this or that text or approach because we’d all share a more developed vision of what deep reading really looks and feels like. And who knows, perhaps that would even help us solve some of those other conflicts.

P.S. If you’re looking for more food for thought, here’s three links worth checking out that  are related to this week’s post:

1. To hear more incredibly sane and wise thoughts from Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, check out their new book Reading Wellness.

2. To see more fun illustrations and explanations of other logical fallacies, check out The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

3. And to get a taste for some of the work I did last week in Los Angeles, check out this podcast interview I gave with the Instructional Superintendent of LAUSD South schools, Robert Bravo.

27 thoughts on “Making Room for Thinking in the New Reading Wars

  1. I always look forward to your posts, ideas and wisdom, Vicki. I have skimmed parts of Reading Wellness thanks to the link at Stenhouse (don’t know how long that option is available) and am eager to hold the book. Read Kim and Jan’s article and have thought for years on this “either/or” issue. Now this may seem a side note, but maybe it isn’t. Please tell me if I am wrong, but I began teaching in 1970 and I never heard the term “whole Language” until 1987 or 1988, when our school bought into the Impressions reading series for our early grades. I was doing readers and writers workshop in gr. 5 at that point as I had evolved to my own belief/system for that way of teaching just as I was learning about the incredible work of Don Graves and Nancie Atwell. (Who are my literacy heroes.) Back then, in the 70s, as now, I am sure there are teachers using all sorts of methods. I know some had Individualized reading programs in this area, using what was called “trade books” ! Of course there was the phonics/whole word approach “war” possibly beginning in the 50s or earlier. What I liked about the idea of “whole language” was that is was “whole”. Incorporated the meaning with word knowledge and the sound system of speech to print. The focus was on all aspects of language for learning to be an automatic, skilled reader. Also the miscue analysis work of the Goodman’s and Brian Cambourne’s ideas along with Marie Clay and Sylvia Ashton’s Warner elucidated the teaching of reading. Most classrooms, though, I think, were “stuck” in basal land with the 3 reading group system (eagles, bluebirds and crows so to speak) and endless “seat work” or as some called it: busywork. We have come so far, so far. Yet we hear that students are not doing well. We need to be more specific. We need to truly analyze the tests that tell us if, in fact, the kids can’t read. I say give these kids some of those old tests (SAT, NY state PEP) and compare now and then….maybe in a study. Your work, Dorothy Barnhouse’s work, Lucy Calkins and all of the smart, dedicated, skilled literacy leaders at TC, Kylene Beers, etc. have goals for helping kids to become avid readers who think. Frank Smith says there is no reading without comprehension. Anyhow, this is long, I know, but I do believe you and Kim and Jan are correct that both of the new “sides” in the “RW” (reading war) have points to offer. We have jumped on bandwagons for too long and also done a disservice to kids along the way. If we bore them with work that is too easy or simply an “assignment” that does not move them forward, if we frustrate them about literacy to the point where they never want to go in a library again, what have we gained? We need all our students in Smith and Atwell’s Reading Club. We need all our students to become adept writers for more reasons then I can list here. We need people of passion who want to do better and help more and learn more. Getting kids to fall in love with reading and I would encourage everyone to use the ideas you and Dorothy wrote about in What Readers Really Do to help this happen. And you are right, if you wanted to learn to play an instrument or learn to paint, you would go to an expert. We need to be experts in our craft of literacy. But this takes time and the right kind of PD etc. Lucky teachers who got to learn from you in LA. Keep on sharing. I look forward to listening to your podcast. My goal is to get you to our area for PD. I will keep trying.

    • Janet – I love reading Vicki as well. And the instructional history you carry is deep and wide and beautiful. I’d love to follow your blog… Where may I find it? (Btw – I am one of those lucky teachers who got to sit with Vicki in Los Angeles – get her into your district. You will all grow exponentially as a result of the community experience! But you already know that.)

    • Thank you for adding your wealth of knowledge and background to Vicki’s thinkings. That is one of the many beauties of this blog. It fosters such wonderful responses. I like Dayna, was one of those lucky LA teachers and share her desire to read more of your thoughts.

      • Thank you Julianne and Dayna. I am lucky to have met and learned from Vicki at a number of national conferences. I urge you to try to get to those ie NCTE and IRA or the state versions. There are many. Join the NerDy Bookclub (blog) if you are not already getting those posts! They are on a variety of topics related to books and learning. I, sadly, do not have my own blog. I am more of a commenter and sharer at this point. On FB I am Janet Clare. Please feel free to send a friend request. My particular interest currently is using poetry in elementary school for literacy. I call it Poetry on Parade because (believe it or not) kids love to memorize poetry done with no pressure or test. I am planning a blog and a book, but I have not gotten to it yet. While I am retired in my 4th year I remain active by subbing, tutoring, speaking and writing. I have lots to say and am thrilled that there are so many incredible resources for teachers these days. I am praying that as we learn to live in the new CCSS world, we are going to be able to teach to the best of our abilities using excellent practices as our guide. In a way there is perfect opportunities for PD online through communication on blogs. As opposed to imposed “programs” and here in NY state, modules. I have very serious concerns about the testing climate and the APPR/VAM model of evaluation. I am more for teacher or grassroots creativity and passion. It is what helped me survive/thrive as a teacher for 39 years. If you would like some other ideas I have many, please ask. I am working hard to get Vicki and Dorothy to this region somehow. I tried last year and could not get it done, but maybe soon. I imagine Vicki mentioned Peter Johnston’s work in Opening Minds and Choice Words, both important to read and learn from. My other huge hero is Brian Cambourne from Australia and his Conditions for Learning as a guiding set of principles. (I was thrilled, but not surprised at all that Vicki and Dorothy mentioned them in the introduction/acknowledgement of What Readers Really Do.) Have a wonderful week.

    • As always, Janet, I so love your passion! I’m reminded here of a session I heard Tom Newkirk & Penny Kittle do at IRA a few years ago. Tom talked about research that showed that the more sense of family history someone had, the more resilient and hopeful they were—and how sad it was in the literacy world that there were too many new teachers out there who were simply unaware of the family history, which is so rich and meaningful. Thanks for the reminder & for keeping the flame alive!

  2. Bravo, Vicki! Once again, you have articulated my thinking more clearly than I ever could. Yes to “building our own capacity as readers.” Yes to teaching kids to think deeply so they “can actually determine the themes of [a] text through its specific details.” Yes to stopping these false dichotomies that prevent everyone from moving forward, especially the kids!

    • Thanks, Catherine! And yes to all the teachers out that who’re aware that we need to focus on kids not this program versus that one and who are committed to learning themselves!

  3. Oh, darn it, Vicki! If only I had known you were in L.A.! You could have stopped in AZ for a visit- we’re right next door! 🙂
    Loved this post, as usual. Your thinking seems spot-on, and I so admire your ability to articulate it.

    • I know I’ll be back at some point, Allison, and maybe we can figure something out. But for this time I added a weekend side trip to see an old friend in Sonoma, which was heavenly!

      • Oh yes, a weekend in Sonoma sounds a lot better than the hot, brown, dusty desert! Hope you had a great time!
        Do let me know if you’re ever out this way again!

  4. Indeed! Bravo! This is exactly what I was thinking…it feels a lot like being in the middle of a maelstrom here in Florida. My district is just catching on to “close reading” and our “new” Florida standards (which are basically common core). There’s a push constantly for DQ3 and DQ4 from our students (Marzano) without laying the foundation. I’m always saying (on the third year of teaching the required basal)…what if my students and I think that the story carries a different theme. There has to be more room for the transactional relationship between reader and text and writer without just giving lip-service. I find myself giving a lot of lip-service to my higher ups and sitting back and enjoying the discussions that arise from my students deep in thought and reading and shaping their worlds.

    • It’s so interesting to see where different states are in the CCS process—or the maelstrom as you so rightly put it. New York jumped on the bandwagon—or, as a colleague of mine likes to say, drank the Kool Aid—focusing most of its energy on having teachers create performance-based tasks, text-dependent questions and rubrics and, and when that didn’t work, investing in packaged programs that claimed far more than they delivered. Finally now, we’re moving back to something more student-centered and sane, while still holding on to what I do think the CCS asked us to do, help students read and think more deeply. I just wish, though, that others could learn by our mistakes rather than repeating a painful process that hurt both teachers and kids. The good news is you’ll find lots of like-minded teachers here who might give you tips & strength for holding on to your convictions until the maelstrom dies down.

      • That is exactly where we are at–teachers creating performance-based tasks, text-dependent questions, and gosh, I would love it if I had the energy to put a rubric with that as well. In fact, on Tuesday (open house), I was signed up for the training on the first of a wave of “new” tests to be given a week from the day I receive my training. On Wednesday, I was signed up for the rubric training for the new test. The test will be paper-and-pencil this quarter (because we don’t have the technology to test all our students in one day on a computer at my K-8). And, at Open House on Tuesday night,

  5. Vicki,
    You have clearly pulled together the “BEST” and I so love that I personally heard Lucy’s challenge in June and that I have already been reading Kim and Jan’s book at Stenhouse and I have been saying all fall that we need “evidence of student thinking”. As Catherine said, “Yes to building our capacities as readers, to teaching kids to think deeply , and to stopping false dichotomies that prevent everyone from moving forward.”

    Students and teachers need to be reading and thinking deeply! ❤

  6. Vicki – what a wonderful thoughtful post to awaken to! And so incredibly helpful as I consider the ways to support teachers work with students in reading thoughtfully and considering writerly moves – primarily at this time so that they might emulate them, but more importantly so that they might be moved by the words they understand on a page, screen, and in the world.

    You’ve framed the “sides” in a way that speaks to the reason we all do what we so love to do. I heard Kelly Gallagher yesterday and one of the things he said I loved most was “I am not a literaTURE teacher, I am a literaCY teacher.” Sounds about right, doesn’t it!

    I can’t wait to read the many links you included here. Love the pod cast! And so fortunate to have gotten to sit with you in LA!

    • It was quite the meeting of the minds—or the kindred spirits—in LA, wasn’t it? And I can’t help thinking that if we worked toward creating the space and instruction for kids to be moved by words, we’d meet the CCS without having to chant them or design lessons around them—and I can’t help but think that you agree!

  7. Being aware of numerous kinds of reading habits, what readers do, seems to be part of a teacher’s responsibility, and that comes from self-reflection along with working hard to understand each child’s own challenges. When we discover both, we can work toward progress. One size does not fit all, so loved hearing you speak of balance, Vicki.

    • Thanks, Linda. It should be part of a teacher’s responsibility to have that professional knowledge, but too many places don’t seem to value that enough to give teachers the time, space and support to develop that. From what I’ve gathered about your school, it’s done just that in a way that’s created a true community of teacher and student thinkers & learners. Just wish there were more places like that—or that schools like yours were recognized more for the working they’re doing.

  8. The swinging pendulum can seem like a wrecking ball. Balance and reasonableness is hard to maintain when so many are looking for an easy answer. The idea that one size could ever fit all is illogical. No one program or approach could possibly address the needs of all. That being said, it takes a lot of time, reflection and support to develop the knowledge to understand the many approaches and then, how to implement the work effectively in our classrooms. Sadly many involved in education don’t recognize (maybe trust) or allow for the development of teachers so that they can achieve this level of practice. I am lucky enough to be in a position in a district that does. Fortunately, for those who aren’t in places that allow for this development, with the access to blogs like yours, Burkis & Yaris and others, we can think together, to reach and develop our practice.

    As always thank you for your thoughts and the community of readers you foster.

    • Talk about powerful word choice! The pendulum has been a wrecking ball and it’s caused so much ruin and damage—as has the search for easy answers. What I find remarkable is that when we slow down and give ourselves the kind of space Chris created for your ECS, every single teacher in the room becomes a deeper reader in ways that can impact how they teach reading. It’s not easy or quick but it’s effective and meaningful—and I think also enjoyable, with everyone being energized by their own and their collaborative thinking. And for those that aren’t lucky enough to be in a district that believes in giving teachers that time and space, there’s also blogs like yours, Steve’s, Fran’s, Dayna’s, and Tara’s, just to name a very few, where others can build a vision of what deep reading and teaching can look like.

  9. Hi, Vicki! I think you’ll find the following discussion from Friday’s Grade 3-5 gathering, responding to William Stafford’s Malheur before Dawn, pertinent:

    B: The more you see, the more he went into the ditch, the more he made it to see how much he could see, he actually found out every little thing in the world can represent a lot of joy.

    M: I wasn’t in the little group explore when I went on the big hike but they were taking this little bit of dirt and finding all these things, all these treausres. You can’t find anything if you don’t look in the little things.

    A: Susan was asking what he said on the last line and I said save the world.

    M: And it’s not like literally. What he means is everyone can slow down and see the little things and find joy in them and there will be so much happiness in the world.

    Z: It’s about the save the world part- maybe it means like other people might see something like this and the save the world part means not having a lot of wilderness taken down and building giant buildings and stuff- what it looks like to take away animal’s habitat. If people experience that, they won’t take it away.

    Wishing you well!

    • OMG, Matt, how gorgeous is this! These are the children who can save the world if we only give them a chance—and don’t completely wreck it for them. And I bet no one had to say, Remember to support your ideas with evidence from the text!

      And now here’s something you might enjoy. I know William Stafford, but didn’t know that poem in particular, and when I went looking for it I discovered a post on the Stafford Archives blog where Japanese college students illustrated the same poem: You and/or the kids might find it interesting. And . . . can’t wait to meet you in person in December!

  10. Thank you for this blog! One of the most exciting outcomes within our district is the “close reading” of children’s books that our TEACHERS are engaging in. I was facilitating a grade level professional development on the Common Core Standards and groups of teachers were reading pictures books, articles, watching videos and talking about the actual “text”…that is where the power truly lies. People making meaning, thinking, and talking with each other about a variety of texts (regardless of complexity or lexile level).

    • So fabulous that you’ve been able to carve out space for teachers to think and make meaning. And picture books can be so great for that because, I’d argue, many are actually quite complex in how they layer and convey meaning through both the text and the illustrations. That is, indeed, where the power to change lives truly lies, with us deepening our own reading lives first.

  11. I’m stuck on the notion of outgrowing myself as a teacher, as a reader. Obviously that entails being a part of a learning community (a kind of Critical Friends group) and following rich, fulfilling blogs like To Make a Prairie.
    What does it mean to “outgrow myself”? I do a lot of reading and attend A LOT of PD, workshops, etc. I need a guide, a mentor, a guru. I think my learning is undisciplined so I’m stuck at the knowing stage.
    I was with Vicki when she was working with LAUSD as well. Sitting in a room full of facilitators-as-students was awesome (everything is as you know). We read, Vicki charting what we knew and what we wondered, what we noticed and what we made of our noticings, we annotated, wrote and shared our ideas. Very simple, very elegant. Learning is delicious and Vicki is a master chef (too much?).

    • Hello, Faynessa, we meet again! To be honest, I also had some problems with the idea of outgrowing ourselves as readers, which seems to suggest that we cast aside something that no longer fits to become something new. I much prefer the idea of deepening something we already have and do—and that requires slowness and patience, not acceleration, which Lucy also mentioned in her speech. But I gather from Eric that you, Gabby & Wendolyn have already taken some of what we did the other week into classrooms with great success. And maybe the three of you—along with Tanya!—could find some time to keep reading together to deepen, not outgrow, what you’re learning.

      And P.S. For another beautiful example of documentation of children’s thinking, check out Matt Karlson’s comment below, which documents a conversation 3-5th graders from the Reggio-inspired Opal School in Portland had about a poem by William Stafford.

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