Analyzing Analysis: How the Parts Contribute to the Whole

The late, great writer Ursula Le Guin believed that “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” I believe this, too, which is why I made a case in my last post for bringing interpretation back into classrooms, as the means through which we can reap reading’s ultimate benefit. But here’s the other thing about interpretation: In addition to helping us develop moral compasses, empathy, and self-awareness, I think academically interpretation also helps us analyze. In fact, I see interpretation as the too often unrecognized behind-the-scene work needed for real analysis.

Think about it for a moment: Interpretation involves putting pieces of a text together to construct an understanding of its deeper meaning. It’s an act of construction, while analysis, on the other hand, deconstructs by separating a whole into its component parts ostensibly to see how the parts affect the whole. But how can readers analyze the function of the parts if they don’t really have a vision of the whole?

I suppose it’s possible to do this if both the whole and its parts are known or familiar, like the dog and its disassembled parts above. But as I wrote in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingreaders who don’t have a vision of the whole beyond the gist can wind up like the blind men in the old Indian tale, who attempted to understand what an elephant was by analyzing a part of it. One man touched the trunk and thought an elephant was a snake; another felt the tail and concluded it was a rope; a third stroked the ear and thought an elephant was a fan. No one was able to make sense of the whole by analyzing a part.

When you have a deeper vision of the whole, however, analysis can be far more insightful. The third graders I wrote about in my last post, for instance, who were reading The Old Woman Who Named Things, didn’t notice every detail or initially understand every word. But once they’d developed an interpretation that encapsulated the whole, they were able to go back to a passage like this and have lots to say about why the writer had decided to have the old woman read this particular book.

In this way, these students were analyzing without explicitly being taught to do so. No learning to use acronyms like RAFT or ACE or sentence starters and templates. Instead, their analysis was a natural out-growth of having meaningfully interpreted the text. And if you’re wondering if what I’m describing is actually analysis, just imagine this example reframed as a question on a standardized Common Core test: “How does this paragraph contribute to the author’s message (or the theme or the character’s development)?”

Questions like this form the bulk of both the multiple choice questions and short constructed responses that students encounter on the PARCC, Smarter Balance and New York State/Engage NY assessments. And in my work with teachers, I’ve been recommending that once students have been able to thoroughly discuss and interpret whatever texts they’ve read as inter-active read alouds, whole class novels, or book club books, you invite them to consider a few analysis questions that either you or the students themselves can create by combining one word or phrase from each column (like the Chinese restaurant menus of my childhood):

I keep finding new words to add to this chart, so it’s a work in progress. But one thing I know for sure is that while students might need to learn the meaning of and nuances between these verbs, they’ll be far more ready to answer these kinds questions if they’ve thought deeply and interpreted what they’ve read, rather than staying on the surface—or, as many students do, only start to think until they hit the questions. And interestingly enough, I’m not the only one who believes this.

Last month, I came across a blog post by Timothy Shanahan called “If You Really Want Higher Test Scores: Rethink Reading Comprehension Instruction.” In the early days of the Common Core, Shanahan spent much time promoting the teaching of close reading by having students answer text-dependent questions over the course of three readings, the first to consider what the text says, the second how it says it, and the third what it means. More recently, however, he’s recognized that this has led many teachers to have a warped view of what it means to read. “Simply put,” he writes,

Reading is NOT the ability to answer certain kinds of questions about a text. . .  Not knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis or evaluation questions. Not “right there,” “think and search,” “author and me,” or “on my own” questions. Not main idea, detail, inference, structure or author’s tone questions.

[Instead] reading is the ability to make sense of the ideas expressed in a text [through] the ability to negotiate the linguistic and conceptual barriers of a text” (or what I call ‘the problems’ a given text poses). Students who can make sense of a text’s ideas will be able to answer any kind of question about that text. While students who fail to scale those linguistic and conceptual barriers”—i.e., to solve those problems—will struggle with the simplest of questions.

And how does he propose teaching kids to do this? Basically, once they’ve learned to decode, by teaching them how to interpret.

Of course, the title of the blog post suggests that Shanahan sees higher test scores as the end goal of interpreting, whereas I see them as the by-product of more authentic and meaningful work. But just think about it: If we provided students with lots of opportunities to interpret right from the start of the year—with time set aside to regularly practice and experience how to move from interpretation to analysis, we wouldn’t have to drive ourselves and our students crazy with test prep at this point in the year. So let’s trade in all those literary analysis sentence stems, acronyms and worksheets and focus on supporting student interpretations as the backbone of analysis.


16 thoughts on “Analyzing Analysis: How the Parts Contribute to the Whole

  1. As always, your thinking is clear and refreshing, Vicki! I love the way it points toward my work as having a limited number of BIG IDEAS — to my mind they are that texts convey meaning and authors do stuff to communicate that meaning — and my goal should be to keep those ideas at the center of everything we do. In the process, there’s lots of inquiry (which bring some important personal and societal change, as Le Guin implies) into what meanings these texts convey. Through our conversations, we can help each other see both what those meanings are and then we can move toward how the author created those meanings.

    One additional thing that struck me was how moving from interpretation to analysis in the way your describe can help us revise our interpretations as we look more closely at a text. You mentioned this in the last post, I believe. Students offered a variety of interpretations about the Old Woman. Those interpretations brought kids back into the text to look at it through those lenses. As they tried to match the words and pictures from the text with their interpretation it caused some interpretations to be discarded, and others to be refined. I don’t think the CCSS creators were necessarily thinking of analysis as a tool to help a reader refine an interpretation when they developed them!

    Thanks so much for your thinking.

    • Forgot to mention. I loved the Chinese restaurant menu idea for at least a couple of reasons: 1) T’would allow kids to ask their own questions easily; 2) would also show that good writing will contain numerous places and ways that meaning is conveyed…so…pick a card, any card!

      • Years ago I worked with a teacher who had her kids design multiple choice tests in small groups as a way of better understanding how standardized tests work, and another class took the test. It was actually quite a powerful way of doing test prep. And you’re making me think I should revive the idea and use the chart this way.

  2. Thank you! I am a big believer in using the classroom reading to prepare of real life. Reading is much more than test score gains; reading is meaningful interpretation. I think we need to use your post here for discussion at a team meeting. I hope that’s okay. Thank you for sharing.

    • Absolutely, Jennifer. It’s always my hope that my posts will spark discussion, thinking & reflection. So absolutely share it. And if you have time, I’d love to know what your team members take on it was!

    • Share away, Jennifer. I send these posts into the world precisely in the hope that they’ll spark conversation, reflection and new ideas. And if you already have shared it, hope the discussion was invigorating!

  3. As always, this post gives me something I can use with teachers on Monday. We are inevitably talking about test-taking at this time of year and your stance on performance in these measures as a by-product of authentic work and critical thinking is a great reminder to continue to teach readers to do what readers really do. Thank you!

    • Hope the post brought something to the table with the teachers you work with, Morgan. Every year test prep kills me, especially because it seems so divorced from the work that goes on through the rest of the year. And I believe it doesn’t have to be this way if we have a bigger, deeper and more authentic vision of reading.

  4. Hi, Vicki! In so many ways, we need to see the interactions with our students and our interactions with text as part of a bigger whole–ways we can live intents and in our world today. I think we and our students can see the world as a part, not apart, from the wonders and the issues and the insights we have together. Honoring these moments, supporting the ideas of the students, and stretching the ideas beyond the beginnings, to see connections, to value the ways we can get smarter by listening to each other–in our words and deeds.

  5. If we teach kids to interpret, which in the very broadest sense may be, “teach” them to think, then learning is inevitable.

    My favorite Dewey quote, which you’ve mentioned in prior posts, comes to mind. “Learning naturally results when we give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections …”.

    Won’t the 3rd graders you describe bring the thinking/logic they use to interpret literature to learning in other areas too? I think so. That’s even more bang for the buck when we teach this way.

    What always strikes me are the structures you describe in your posts. You are providing the students “with something to do not something to learn”. I want to be a kid in one of your classrooms! When we provide the types of opportunities and structures you suggest (discussions, interactive read alouds, whole class novels and book clubs) as Dewey said, “learning naturally results”. There may be prompts or charts implemented along the way but they’re used as tools; ultimately the structures you describe are “messy”. They’re not precise recipes. Allowing learning to be “messy” is hard work even for us true believers. We may come up against _______ (insert the prepacked program du jour here) written by _________ (insert the expert du jour here).

    The programs that are literally sold often focus on skills taught in isolation or those that have a predetermined end product. PD then becomes a vehicle where teachers work on how to implement a program rather than discuss structures to promote the deep thinking you describe. Wish my weekly PD was around Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading!

    You have given a lot to ponder again. Thank you for promoting deeper thought for teachers too!

    • Thanks as always, Claudia, for the thoughtful response. I do believe there’s a movement in the field to move schools away from the old factory model and into the 21st century, where process is as important a product and teachers need to be innovators, not deliverers and evaluators. It just can’t get there fast enough for people like you & me.

  6. This is brilliant. You have such a way of combining all the ideas that are running around in my head, willy-nilly-style, into a graceful arc of a teaching method.

    • Thanks, Cathy. Do know, though, that I had to go through a journey to get here, which involved a lot of questioning of accepted practices and much experimentation. And the journey was quite messy. But my hunch is you’re on a journey as well, which may take you to wonderful, unexpected, and even graceful places.

  7. Pingback: The Skillification of Reading | To Make a Prairie

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