Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Solving Problems as Readers


One of the most common text features found in professional books are subtitles, and having taken a look the last two weeks at dynamic teaching and deeper reading, I want here to explore and explain what’s behind this book’s subtitle: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach.

Many of you already know something about problem-based teaching and learning (a.k.a. PBL). In fact, PBL may already be in your teaching repertoire. But here’s a little background: Problem-based teaching and learning became established as a specific zombie-based-learning-2teaching practice when medical school professors in the 1960’s shifted from teaching their students through lectures and textbooks to setting them up to solve the kind of complex diagnostic problems they’d experience in the field. And in today’s world, PBL is joined by a plethora of what the Buck Institute for Education dubs “X-based learning” practices, such as project-based learning, game-based learning, design-based learning, brain-based learning—and even zombie-based learning!

Most of these are variations of basic constructivist and inquiry practices that again go back to Dewey and to other great thinkers like Piaget and Einstein, who claimed, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” And while there are some differences between X-based practices, they all share at least some of the features that Dr. Howard Barrows, who adapted these ideas to the teaching of physicians, describes here:


If Google and educational websites are any indication, it seems as if PBL has taken hold in many math, science and STEM classrooms, but it hasn’t gotten much traction in reading, where we tend to think that problem solving is only needed at the word level. But think back to (or catch up on) the students I wrote about last week, who worked their way through “Louisa’s Liberation.” They did, indeed, have to figure out what a word meant, but to do that they had to first figure out what point was being made about the fact that Louisa was playing doctor, not house or even nurse, as Katie and Emily thought. And figuring that out then allowed them to figure out what the author, Jean Little, might be trying to show them about people and life through the story.

All this figuring out was needed because the writer conveyed this information indirectly. direct-vs-indirectAnd in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper ReadingI propose that we see every instance in which a writer conveys something implicitly, versus explicitly, as a problem that text poses for readers. This can be something as deep and meaningful as what a writer wants us to consider about the human condition to something as seemingly simple as what or who a pronoun refers to. And part of the trick of a problem-based approach is becoming more aware of where, precisely, those problems are in a text.

To build that awareness in the book, I regularly invite readers to look at a short text or excerpt to consider what the writer hasn’t said directly that a reader would have to figure out. And to give you a taste of that, take a look at the text below. It’s the opening of a folktale that a group of 5th grade teachers brought to my attention after it appeared on a state benchmark assessment. How much do you have to figure out just to get the basic who, what, where and when? (And if you’d like a strategy for that, pay attention to when you’re confused.)


If you’re like the teachers who shared this text with me, your jaw might have dropped at what seems like the unnecessary confusion of this passage. Mostly it’s because the characters are referred to in different ways, which the writer doesn’t explicitly clarify. And just imagine how much your confusion would be compounded if you were a fifth grader who also didn’t know what the words dispute, Zen, monastery and monk meant.

zen-monk-scrollIf we see these, though, as problems to solve and give students a chance to collaboratively wrestle with them, many are able to do what a small group of sixth grade students did. They had no idea what a Zen master was, or a monastery, but they reasoned that the Zen master must be some sort of teacher because he had a student, and that, whatever a monastery was, it was where the Zen master lived. They also recognized that a conversation was going on, and using what they knew about dialogue, they were able to figure out that the Zen master and the old monk were one and the same, as was the wandering and the visiting monk. And while there were questions about whether there was one or two one-eyed characters (one a student and the other a monk), one of the group made a case for them being one and the same, too, because he thought that if the one-eyed monk was a new character, he’d have been introduced with an not the.

Each chapter in the book’s Section Two is grounded in a classroom room example that shows kids grappling with specific kinds of problems texts pose, like figuring out the basics in fiction or understanding the implications of facts in nonfiction. And each comes with a chart that shares some of what readers have to do to solve those problems, like this one on figuring out the basics in fiction and narrative nonfiction:


From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann a caption

Additionally, between the chapters in Section Two, you’ll find a Considering Complexity feature that notes other texts that poses similar problems at different reading levels, so, regardless of what grade you teach or where your students are, you have some place to start:


From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

My hope is that these features will encourage and inspire you to try out this teaching approach (if you haven’t already). And finally, I think it’s important to remember the benefits of making this shift. Not only will students retain more of what they’ve learned because they’ve figured things out for themselves, but they’ll reap the additional benefit that the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca described:


11 thoughts on “Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Solving Problems as Readers

  1. Pingback: #DigiLit Sunday & #SOLC17: Sunday morning reading… | A Teaching Life

  2. Wisely spoken! If only teachers would understand and establish learning environments where students grapple with texts. Assessment is a measurement ~ if students are not able to interact with the test text then ask, what might instruction look like to provide student practice as readers? Workbook and mindless teacher pay teacher activities must be BURNED so daily students are immersed in texts that matter and begin to understand and discuss why one reads!

    • Hello Terri! So eager to know what you think of the book in its final form since you got to see one a really early chapter draft! It’s test season here in NY & I’ve been working with teachers this week talking about this very thing. I do not like NY’s test because the questions are often convoluted and some of the texts are absurdly hard, but we can’t wait until test prep to teach kids to read closely and deeply. And workbooks and too much of what Teachers Pay Teacher activities simply don’t get us there because they aim to simplify, not deepen.

  3. Vicki,
    It was truly my pleasure to read this post, go for a walk with Mya, reread, read some other work, pack up some “work items” and then return about four hours later. And somewhere, in between, were a couple of conversations (one-sided) with you. Unfortunately students in testing situations don’t have those options.

    I see two major issues that confound this work:
    1) Assessment companies that are “scooping” up obscure text for assessments that match a perceived “lexile level” / text complexity without any regard for whether this is really something that students should even read. And for what purpose? (Personally I think this text would definitely confound most of our federal legislators as well as the current Secretary of Education.)
    2) Teachers are trying to deal with the standards and instruction and they are receiving mixed messages. On one hand they are “told” to have students “close read” passages and many folks offer all kinds of ways including number of times that students should read the text. Students are “doing” this work when told but does that result in deep learning or any transfer? This is a shift both as Terri said away from “mindless workbook and teacher pay teacher”activities as well.

    Students need to have a purpose in mind for reading as well as a need to read interesting and engaging text. Being told what, how, and when to read is no longer sufficient. (18 more days)

    • I make a case that the purpose of reading should be to try to understand what the author of a text might be trying to show us–i.e., what it means–at least most of the time. And I share some research from Tim Shanahan’s blog, that when we said a more narrow purpose for reading, kids are able to get whatever the purpose asks them to get, but they’re overall comprehension goes down, which seems problematic to me–an unfortunate outcome of a skills vs. meaning-based approach to reading. But, boy, am I look forward to the conversation about this book–including a G2Great twitter chat on April 27!

  4. As always, Vicki, you have identified and named the confusion that frustrates many students as they navigate their way through text. The chart you created in reading fiction will be helpful in aiding teachers in setting up inquiry circles. As you shared last summer, your work with Lucy West, and the science/math folks have influenced your thinking, and I love how you continually remind us about the wisdom and insight of Dewey.

    • Thanks, Laurie! At NCTE this year (and in the book) I share stories of kids who are completely lost in supposedly ‘just right’ books because they’ve haven’t figured out who or what a pronoun refers to or that a time shift has taken place–and envisioning, predicting or making text-to-self connections won’t necessarily help them. But being aware of when they’re confused will. And I think, inquiries in any content area acknowledges the importance of confusion as a place from which learning starts.

  5. This work is beautiful. Diving into the idea of PBL can be scary. Especially with the wide open nature of reading. There is so much for readers to figure out which is the beauty of it. The frustration and confusion are the parts we teachers have to manage. We have to get students comfortable in that discomfort but to do that we have to be comfortable in that. Your book (can’t wait) will support us. Thank you so much for the peeks into its pages.

    • I definitely talk about the need to normalize confusion as something we all feel, but it seems like we may have to normalize discomfort, too, which I think anyone who’s really trying to learn something that’s not simple feels. And I love how you’ve been sharing your own confusion and discomfort in your SOL pieces this month! It’s such a privilege to have a window into the mind of a teacher who’s really thinking and trying to puzzling things out in the way we need to be doing.

      • Thank you Vicki! That confusion is where I hope to grow from. Hope you don’t mind the riff in your book title…it seemed to fit!

  6. Pingback: A Toast to Provocations & Spirited Discourse: The Book Is Out! | To Make a Prairie

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