Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Delving into Deeper Reading


So here’s a problem I wrestled with this week: How do I explain something like deeper reading that took me nearly four years, over two hundred pages and countless drafts to describe in a thousand-or-so-word blog post? My solution? Create an opportunity for you to begin to construct your own understanding of it by sharing a classroom example from the book!

In this example, I was working with a small group of fifth graders—Ava, Luce, Antonio and Nick—all of whom, according to their teacher, were having trouble identifying theme. And the text I decided to invite them to read was a short piece called “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little’s wonderful book Hey World, Here I Am!, a collection of poems, journal entries and vignettes written by the lovable narrator Kate. The goal would be for the students to ultimately consider what Little might be trying to show us about people or life through the piece, and I invite you to read it here, too, with that same goal in mind:

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of  HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

As a proficient reader, you may have thought Jean Little was saying something about stereotypes—and you might have even laughed as you realized she was playing a joke on Kate and Emily, who seem in need of liberation themselves. If you considered more specifically what she could be saying about stereotypes, you might have arrived at an idea like this: Even people who think they’re enlightened can fall into stereotyping. And depending on the grade you teach, you might have also have thought your students wouldn’t get that for a variety of reasons. They might lack background knowledge about the women’s rights movement or not know words like liberation, trundling, and preoccupied. Or you might question if they have the maturity to reach a similar conclusion. And you’d be right—at least in terms of what students might not know.

After reading the first section, I asked the students what they thought they’d learned so far and what they were curious or confused about (i.e., what they knew and wondered), which revealed that none of them knew what liberation meant. Nick thought it could be connected to the word library because of what seemed like a common root, but that idea didn’t work out when he tried it on the second line (“It was up to us to make sure Louisa grew up liberated.”) Noticing details about teaching and school, though, Ava and Antonio wondered if liberation might mean education, and because this worked in both the noun and verb form, they used it as a placeholder, as in, they thought Kate and Emily wanted to find Louisa so they could educate her.

What they still didn’t know, though, was what Kate and Emily wanted to teach herchild-playing-doctor-2. Luce thought it might have to do with the words sex stereotypes (which she pointed to rather than said out loud), and the rest thought that was possible. So with this thinking on the table, they were ready to wrestle with the rest of the piece, which continued to puzzled them.

They sensed there was something significant about Louisa playing nurse or doctor rather than playing house, but they didn’t know what to make of that. Nor did they know how it connected to Emily and Kate’s mission to educate her. And so I invited them to try to talk it out, and here’s a taste of their thinking:

Ava: I think it’s important that she’s pretending to be a doctor, not a nurse, because doctors help people and nurses just help doctors.

Luce: Yeah, and one of my aunts is a nurse and she told me doctors get paid lots of money. So they’re sort of more important than nurses.

Antonio: And Louisa thinks she can be anything she wants to be, not just a nurse but a doctor.

Ava: But Kate and Emily thought she was playing nurse, so maybe they didn’t think she could be a doctor.

Luce: And maybe they thought that because lots of women are nurses but only some are doctors.

Antonio: But she didn’t need them to teach her anything. She already thought she could be anything she wanted. And they were just happy she wasn’t in the kitchen.

Nick (who’d been quiet till then): Oh! I think I just figured out what liberation means. It’s like the Statue of Liberty. Louisa’s free to be anything she wants to be because liberty is like freedom.

Ava: Yeah, she’s not in a box, but Kate and Emily sort of are because they only expected her to be a nurse.

Antonio: It’s like she’s more liberated and mature than they are. But maybe Louisa can liberate them.

girl-in-a-boxGiven time to question, ponder and think, these students arrived at the same implicit and nuanced idea that you, yourself, may have had. And as they talked about what they had learned about people and life through the story, some said that Jean Little had shown them that age doesn’t always determine maturity, while others thought she had shown them that sometimes you might be in a box even if you think you’re not. They also had lots of strong opinions about people who thought women couldn’t do the same jobs as men. And when I asked if they thought they’d learned anything as readers from this experience, here’s what they had to say:

Ava: “Yeah, it’s like there was a story inside the story and we figured it out.”

Nick: “It’s really important to figure out words, especially if they’re in the title.”

Antonio: “We also had to think about what we didn’t know, not just what we did.”

Luce: “That was really hard, but fun!”

If we go back to the words I shared last week from John Dewey’s contemporary Michael O’Shea, you can see that by framing the students’ reading around what the author might be showing them about people or life, I put them in “a dynamic attitude toward the thing being presented,” which helped them “keep thinking up to the limit of their constantly enlarging capacity.” Or as Dewey said, by giving these students “something to do, not something to learn,” that demanded thinking, “learning would naturally result.” And here that learning included expanding their understanding of human beings as well as realizing there can be an implicit message in a story, that much can be gained by paying attention to what you don’t know, and that thinking hard can actually be fun.

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that, if you take a look at the Common Core Anchor Standards below, you’ll see that they were also engaged in the work of standards 1-6. That’s because when we invite students to dynamically read deeply for meaning, they automatically—and authentically—engage in the work of the standards.


So now the question is, what’s your understanding of deeper reading now?


25 thoughts on “Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Delving into Deeper Reading

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  2. Vicki,
    So much important work here and my thinking includes:
    1) Teachers will have to make time for this work because it truly has students DOING the work.
    2) Questions from teachers are not helpful and probably always put readers into boxes of right and wrong answers even when they are directed at critical thinking.
    3) The Common Core Standards do NOT operate in isolation. The way that they work together in service of deeper understanding is the comprehension work our students deserve.
    4) The conversation about this passage probably took twice as long as the reading. That also pulls in the speaking and listening standards so it is time WELL spent and time that must be spent again to support 1-3 above.

    I can hardly wait for this book . . . so needed . . . to get at the real work that readers do when reading and thinking! ❤

    • I do think there’s a movement in the ed world now that recognizes that this is the work kids need to do–and that teachers also need time and support to develop their own capacities to facilitate this work. We just need others on board who also see–and get–your third point, which is so important. In the book I talk about making a shift between teaching parts vs. teaching to the whole, which I think is the deeper comprehension work kids deserve. But in ELA in particular, we really seem focused on teaching parts, whether that’s individual literary elements, strategies or standards–and I’ve tried to make the best case I can for that to change!

  3. Wonderful, very thought provoking, post! As a 2nd year literacy coach, I am trying to encourage more, and deeper, small group discussion in upper elementary classrooms.

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  5. The Dewey quote you referenced in your prior blog is a mantra for me – I keep it posted on my kindergarten classroom door as a daily reminder to myself – so I was really curious to see where you were going to take us in this post.


    The lesson you described was so thoughtful, and in many ways, so simple. Simple in the best sense. It didn’t require the teacher on stage, snazzy charts or graphic organizers for kids to complete. All of those, do have a place in classrooms. But here, like a minimalist painting or a little black dress, the teaching was deceivingly complex and “chic”.

    Clearly, this lesson took forethought and masterful planning for the “unknown” on the part of the teacher. It showed trust of student abilities and high expectations. As Fran noted above, it allowed time for kids’ to do the “work”. It was apparent that kids’ reasoning was the norm, right answers not a goal, revisionary thinking an expectation (and so much more “highly effective” teaching across Domains 1,2,3,4)! It was clear a zeitgeist for thinking/learning/wondering was created in the microcosm of this classroom or for this group by a very smart teacher.

    I’m not sure if others come up against the following as I do… sometimes, even though lessons are thoughtfully and purposely open ended and designed to get kids to reason, others assume I’m advocating for “not planning” or “not teaching”. Sometimes, when what is deemed to be direct instruction (i.e. “I tell or model and you listen or spit back”) is not seen, others may assume thoughtful teaching and planning isn’t happening.

    What you described shows quite the opposite is true. It brought to mind Ron Ritchhart’s work, especially Cultures of Thinking, which you’ve mentioned in past blogs.

    As you noted, when we plan for and create a zeigeist in our classrooms where kid’s do much of the real “work” (thinking/reasoning/wondering) – much of the standards will take care of themselves. As for standards that aren’t met, it’s easier to teach them explicitly to kids who are used to having to reason!

    Can’t wait to read the book! Sounds like it will have implications across disciplines.

    • So much to respond to here, Claudia! I particularly like the idea that the teaching was “chic”! And it’s interesting to note that I end the book with some thoughts about how simplicity is compatible with complexity, but not simplification, which attempts to reduce complexity in a way that short-changes kids and often comes in the form of too much scaffolding. Mostly, though, I want to affirm what you’ve said about planning, which I talk about extensively in the book. That lesson was, in fact, carefully planned, from the choice of the text and my decisions on how to chunk it to my understanding of where the challenges to understanding it lay. All that allowed me to not only be planned, but to be prepared for different ways the lesson could have unfolded depending on what the students said, which, as you noted, also align with Charlotte Danielson’s framework for effective teaching. And I’ve tried my hardest it unpack all the thinking that goes into that kind of planning so that it can be replicated by others teaching different texts and grades.

    • Yes, Matt! In the book, I share some facts and ideas from Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question,” which if you haven’t read it is a really fascinating read. He makes a case that questioning is not only vital to being literate but to being a citizen of the 21st century. And he also notes that kids’ questions take a nose dive after the age of four, and that plunge corresponds to their lack of engagement in school, which too often prizes answers over questions. Good to know, though, how many of us are out there doing all we can to bring real curiosity and the questions that inspires into classrooms!

      • Read Warren Berger – thank you for the great suggestion. It brought to mind Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas and one of her essays “Helping Students get to Where Ideas Can Find Them.”

        Click to access 1st_article.pdf

      • And thank you so much for sharing this link! Anything that begins with a quote from Winnie the Pooh is right up my alley. And this piece is wonderful! I did note, though, that she’s been writing about this since 1973, which reminds me that these ideas aren’t new but they haven’t taken hold in a way that they should (even when they’re from John Dewey, who educators supposedly revere). So believe that we have to find ways of giving teachers more time to live, explore and experiment with these ideas!

  6. Vicki,
    One of the beautiful things about this Jean Little book is that it gets readers to the thinking work quickly. The totality of the piece supports the reader just enough to reason out the meaning. We (teachers) need to be vigilant in seeking out texts that allow students to do this type of nitty-gritty reasoning work and giving them the time to do it.
    These lean prompts are so simple students can use them without any explanation (teach).
    What do you think you’ve learned so far?
    What are you curious or confused about (know/wonder) ?
    And then, after a lot of talk…
    Did you learn anything as a reader from this experience?
    The teach was to allow students to struggle appropriately with a text that they almost got. Probably the situation for so much of what students read and do little thinking about. They all could figure this text out. But only with time and opportunity to be really responsive to the text and each other did they do the deeper reading work necessary to access the text. Whoa! Beautiful.

    • Thanks as always, Julieanne, for adding so much to the conversation. I think Jean Little called this piece a poem and poems are wonderful for doing this work because they do get readers to the thinking work quickly–and that helps them not only see but experience the real payoff of taking time to read closely and deeply. And if kids don’t get to experience that, it’s unlikely that, on their own initiative, they’ll apply and transfer the thinking from one text to another.

  7. Vicki,
    This post arrived in my inbox at the perfect time! I am reading Falling in Love with Close Reading and what you describe here closely mirrors what Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts outline in their book. It is so important to give kids time to delve into a text and to talk about it with their peers. Although we all tend to read something and then come up with sweeping ideas about that text, it’s critical to go back to the text for a closer read – to gather ideas and then look for patterns. I think you get at this in your post. This is something I need to get better at. Thanks for nudging your readers to do that.

    • There’s much to love in Chris & Kate’s book, but one of the things I do a little differently is position kids to do the deeper thinking on a first read, rather than a second or third one. For me that means inviting kids to notice patterns the first time they read–though if there are kids who aren’t getting the hang of it or need additional practice, I’d then focus on the kind of work Chris and Kate share in small targeted groups. But the delving and the talking is definitely something we both focus on–and that I believe teachers can get better at over time with practice!

      • Yes, I’ve also been reading some of what Burkins and Yaris say about close reading and it seems to be similar to what you say here. I also like how Burkins and Yaris emphasize that close reading can happen at any time and not as an isolated event. Why, oh why do we sometimes take great instructional strategies and do overkill??

      • Sounds like you’re having one of those wonderful moments where you’re seeing all sorts of connections between what you’re reading. Love when that happens! As for your last why, oh why question, I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do think we don’t give teachers enough time to really understand what they’re being asked to teach, which risks it being implemented on a surface level.

  8. I have been so fortunate to see yiu in action like this in our district. I miss you coming and sharing this human way of sharing the joy that is reading when so many lessons become for so many a place of boredom and disengagement. We as teachers need to trust that this is the teaching that needs to be done and trust, as you showed here, that students naturally want this from their reading.
    Margaret Connolly Sweet Home Schools

    • And I so miss Sweet Home, too! I truly loved the work I did there–so much so you’ll see some examples from Sweet Home in the book. And one of the things I loved the most was the willingness of all the teachers I worked with to take a leap of faith–and a step outside your comfort zones–to trust in both the process and their students! So hope our paths cross again & in the meantime, please give my best to all my Sweet Home friends!

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