Determining Next Instructional Steps: Looking at Student Work Through an Improving Stance


Last week I shared how a group of third and fourth grade teachers deepened their students’ understanding of realistic fiction by introducing the concept of character flaws. Framing instruction around this vision definitely helped make the students’ stories more powerful. But once they began to develop ideas in which characters were complicit in the problems they faced and had to change to solve them, there was still lots of teaching to do. And we determined that teaching not just by returning to the unit plan but by using the critical practice of looking at student work.

looking-at-student-workTeachers, of course, look at student work all the time, often on their own, as they check assignments or pre- and post assessments for the purpose of evaluating or seeing if the students got something or not (which, if they haven’t, usually means the next step is reteaching). Writing in Educational Leadershipauthors Angie Deuel, Tamara Nelson, David Slavit and Anne Kennedy call this “the proving approach” to looking at student work, which is guided by the question, Did the students get it or not? And that’s different, they write, from what they call “the improving approach,” which teachers should ideally do collaboratively in order to explore a different question: What are students thinking?

According to the authors, using an improving approach to looking at work supports

“more generative conversations about student work. Teachers’ discussions yielded different questions that teachers wrestled with; those questions led to additional questions and sometimes to spirited debates about what teaching and learning should look like. Teachers sharpened their thinking about instruction, learning styles, content, formative assessment, the role of the teacher, and student engagement.”

This approach to looking at student work was precisely what led the teachers I worked with to rethink the way students were planning their stories. And studying the students’ work, we also realized that we needed to think deeper about what we teaching them not just about planning but drafting and revising.

To see what I mean, take a look at both this fourth grade student’s story mountain along with his initial draft and consider what the student reveals about his understanding of both planning and writing stories—that is, what do you think is going on in his head? story-mountain-sample-2


In a sense this student did exactly what he’d been asked to do: He filled in all the story mountain boxes and used that to create a first draft. He also revealed an understanding of the concept of a climax and, perhaps, that characters need to change in order to solve their problems. But if you looked carefully at the first three event boxes, you may have noticed that he seems to have broken down one event into three, which suggests he has a fuzzy idea of what a story event is and how stories tend to complicate things before they resolve them. Additionally, he doesn’t seem to have a vision of the difference between planning and drafting, as he seemed to rewrite what he wrote in the boxes for his draft with only a few added details.

ruby-the-copycat-coverRecognizing these misconceptions, we then had to think about how to address them, which is one of the challenges of an improving approach. That’s because, as the Educational Leadership authors write, “taking an improving stance often unearths the formidable complexities of teaching and learning that stay hidden when the focus is on making cutoff scores.” We considered, for instance, offering a lesson on dialogue or leads, but while those would provide students with a strategy for drafting, it might not give them that deeper understanding of the difference between planning and drafting and of summaries and scenes. So we returned to one of our mentor texts and designed a lesson, which I then taught, that explicitly addressed those misconceptions while also providing a vision of craft.

To implement the lesson, I first created a chart that showed what Ruby the Copycat author Peggy Rothman might have put int the Event #1 box if she’d filled out a story mountain worksheet:


Then once the students had gathered on the rug, I introduced the chart then read the following from Rothman’s book, asking them to consider this question (which I invite you to think about, too): How are these pages different from what’s in the box?  ruby-the-copycat-1



Of course, kids being kids, the first thing they noticed was the book said Ruby sat behind Angela, not next to her as I’d written. But as you’ll see below, they went on to notice much more, beginning with the fact that there were more descriptive words.


Because I didn’t want them to arbitrarily add more descriptive words to their pieces for the simple sake of being more descriptive, I asked if they could give me an example, which brought out the lines about Ruby tiptoeing and looking at Angela’s bow. Building on that, I then asked if they thought those details did more than just describe what Ruby was doing, and the students all said yes. Those details gave them clues about Ruby—that she might be shy or want to ‘lay low’ and that she admired Angela’s bow and might want to copy it.

imageIn this way the students were grasping another concept I wrote about in an earlier post on show, don’t tell: that writers actually show and tell, conveying information through the details they choose. And the students thought the dialogue was doing this as well. It gave the reader a hint about Ruby’s problem which, to the delight of the observing teachers, one of the students named as foreshadowing.

Studying the beginning of a mentor text this way definitely gave the students a deeper vision of a scene versus a summary and of planning versus drafting. But having a vision doesn’t automatically mean being able to replicate it on your own. For that learners, be they children or adults, need additional practice, and I’ll share how we offered that in another post. For now, though, try to keep that distinction in mind: Are you proving or improving when you look at student work?

How Vision Can Inform Instruction: Applying a Deep Understanding of Genre


In 1986, a few years before I joined the Teachers College Writing Project, Lucy Calkins published The Art of Teaching Writing, which introduced writing workshop to a generation of teachers. Much has changed in the world of writing since then, but perhaps as a sign the world’s changing again, Lucy returned to the opening paragraph of The Art of Teaching Writing during this year’s summer writing institutes to tell a new generation of teachers that “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential.”

For writing in general, she said what was essential was for both students and teachers alike to write and read massive amounts so as, as one attendee put it, “develop an identify as a writer who can make sense of the world, and even change it, through writing.” This does seem essential, but I think we also need a vision for what’s essential in the genres we teach, which is why, in my last post, I invited readers to read a short piece of realistic fiction to develop a deeper understanding of that genre’s purposes.

understanding-by-designAs you can see here, their responses were wonderful, with many articulating what you could call an enduring understanding: a big idea that, defined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Designresides at the heart of a discipline, has enduring value beyond the classroom, and requires the uncovering of abstract or often misunderstood ideas.” Fran McVeigh, for instance, said that, “Good realistic fiction should hit us with an emotional response and make us think/question both what the words say and the underlying implied author’s message.” While Dana Murphy put it this way:

“The deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be to invoke an understanding in the reader. I think writers write realistic fiction so that the reader will say, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that,’ or ‘I haven’t ever felt that but I feel it now.’ It’s like the story is just the medium to pass human emotions through.”

Others also used that word human, with Annie Syed writing, “There is so much of human experience we don’t have words for but we try anyway,” and reading and writing helps us with that. And Julieanne Harmatz wrote, “These stories tug at humanity; the human error we all suffer from. Those base instincts we shamefully share and hide.” Steve Peterson didn’t use the word human per se, but he spoke of realistic fiction as “a way to transform the world, or at least A world [such as the reader’s]—to take what is and set it on edge for another perspective,” which seems directly related to Lucy’s essentials.

These are all great examples of enduring understandings, but unfortunately we don’t always frame our instruction around this kind of big idea, teaching students instead that realistic fiction is a made up story comprised of characters, a setting and events that could be real, whose purpose is to entertain. We might settle for this because we don’t think students are mature enough to write stories with such depth or need to learn the basics first. And even if we want to aim for something deeper, we may not be sure how to do that, which is what happened with some third and fourth grade teachers I worked with.

At the time we first met, they’d already launched the unit by having students develop a character with a problem and then use a story mountain worksheet to plan out the plot—and already the teachers were worried. Many of the students’ story ideas seemed far-fetched or clichéd. They knew their characters’ favorite color and food, but not what made them tick, and the plots were too simple or too convoluted, all of which could be seen in the students’ work. So what could they do beyond march through the unit?

To consider that question we looked at two mentor texts, No More Tamales and Ruby the Copycat to study how those writers created more complex characters and plots that didn’t resolve problems too quickly or simply went on and on. And what we realized was that in each story the characters helped cause the problems they faced and had to change to resolve those—and it was precisely through this transformative journey that the authors invoked our feelings and understanding about the human experience.

Recognizing that the instruction they’d offered so far hadn’t reached that depth, the teachers decided to introduce the concept of character flaws through the mentor texts. Additionally, some decided to create a class character with a flaw and invite their class to collaboratively brainstorm what kind of problems that flaw might create or make worse and how that character might have to character-flawchange. This would involve students with the actual kind of thinking work realistic fiction writers are engrossed in and support another characteristic of enduring understandings: offer potential for engaging students.

In fact, the students were so engaged with the idea of flaws that in one of the classes that was reading Because of Winn-Dixie a student raised an interesting question: Did the main character Opal have a flaw? Rather than answering the question herself, their wonderful teacher Trish Compton suggested they all turn and talk about that. And as the class shared out their ideas, they decided that Opal, whose main problem they thought was loneliness, did have a flaw of sorts: She was so overcome with the loss of her mother, she couldn’t always see that she was making friends, and thus didn’t need to feel lonely. And they were eager to see how that might change.

They also wrote some amazing stories, such as this one by a third grader called “Forgiveness.” I invite you to read it and think about if, in an age-appropriate way, it reflects the kind of enduring understanding vision the teachers articulated above. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment here.



Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters


Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.



Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

What We Knew by Heart: Turning Our Own Reading Practices into Curriculum

Book of Hours c. 15th century, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Borrowing again from Katie Wood Ray‘s book, What We Know by Heart, which explores how we can develop curriculum from our own experiences as writers, I want to share some of the amazingly thoughtful comments readers left in response to Allen Woodman’s short short story “Wallet” in the other week’s post. In particular, I want to try to notice and name the moves those readers made and the instructional implications of those moves for classrooms.

To begin with, every single reader who responded was deeply engaged in thinking about what particular details might mean, both individually and in relationship to the whole. They considered the significance of the fortune cookie, the father’s comment about “all oyster and no pearl,” the billfold rising up “like a dark fish,” and the puzzling line that several mentioned, “There will be time enough for silence and rest.” Sometimes they had specific ideas about what those details might be revealing about character or even theme, and sometimes they weren’t sure what to do with them. But they all entered the text assuming that the details they encountered weren’t random but had been deliberately chosen by the author to convey something more than, say, the literal contents of a wallet. And as readers, their job was to attend to those details and to question and consider their meaning, which they did by wondering and brainstorming possibilities in a way that seemed less firm or emphatic than an inference or a prediction.

I believe there are instructional implications in what these readers knew about texts and how they used strategies based on that knowledge. Katie Wood Ray calls these “curriculum chunks,” and we can turn these chunks into teaching points, which could sound like this:

  • Readers know that writers choose details deliberately to reveal both characters and the ideas or themes they’re exploring through the story.
  • Because they know that, readers do the following:
    • They attend to the details they notice, asking themselves and wondering: Why is the author telling me this? What could this possibly mean?
    • They hold onto those wonderings as they keep reading, expecting to gain more clarity as they read.
    • They consider the possible meaning of details by brainstorming, using words like ‘maybe’, ‘might’ or ‘could.’

The readers of “Wallet” also brought their knowledge of how stories work to anticipate what some called a “twist”. But interestingly enough, not a single one predicted. Instead they all tried to remain open to whatever twists and turns the writer took, letting the story unfold on its own terms, while keeping their thinking tentative and flexible, knowing that endings are often unpredictable—and are frequently better for that.

There were also none of the literal text-to-self connections we frequently hear in classrooms—that is, no stories about pick-pocketed wallets or aging fathers in Florida. Mostly readers connected with their previous experiences as readers. And the one reader who explicitly made a connection to his grandfather pushed and prodded and probed that connection, connecting it to other details and memories until it yielded an insight about the text.

Similarly while many readers talked about visualizing, they did so for specific reasons. They visualized as a way of monitoring their comprehension and as a tool to infer events that were conveyed indirectly in the text. They visualized to interpret the imagery, like the billfold rising “like a dark wish.” They also visualized as a way of emotionally engaging with the story, with virtually no mental image mentioned without the reader also thinking of what that image made them feel. And along with that inquisitive, wondering stance, “it was,” as one reader put it, “the way the text made me feel that truly supported my meaning making.”

Here, too, there are instructional implications that could be turned into teaching points:

  • Readers know that stories unfold over time in ways that aren’t always predictable, and so they try to keep their minds open and receptive, drafting and revising their understandings as they go, without clamping down on any one idea too early.
  • Readers know that it’s not enough to make a connection with a text. They explore and question their connections, using them as tools to dig deeper.
  • Readers visualize to both monitor and fix breakdowns in their comprehension and to infer events that weren’t made explicit in the text.
  • Readers also visualize to think about the imagery and engage emotionally with the text. And they use their emotional responses and ideas about the imagery to consider what the author might be trying to show them or explore through the vehicle of the story.

It’s also worth noting that no reader made a definitive claim about ‘the theme’ of the story. Perhaps they would have if I’d asked them to; but at the risk of speaking for them, I think that, as readers, they didn’t feel a need to sum up and fit all they were thinking into a single statement—yet. They were, however, all circling ideas that we could call understandings or themes. One, for instance, was trying to “reconcile the complex notion that the father might be embarrassed but also delighted at the same time,” while others kept thinking about that fortune cookie, aware that the events of the story refuted its life-is-always-the-same-old-story message. One thought the story was “at least partly about” our society’s view of the elderly, while others considered what it might be saying about father and son relationships. And having that line about silence and rest brought to my attention by a few readers, I found myself thinking about mortality and death, which seems to hover over the story as yet another layer and lens for thinking about its ideas.

My hunch is that what we each focused on says something about our individual preoccupations and concerns. And the beauty of the story is that it offered so many entryways in less than 300 words, along with the following teaching points:

  • Readers know that even short texts can’t always be boiled down to a single idea, and that there are many ways of accessing and constructing understandings based on which details the reader notices and what they bring to the text.
  • Readers don’t read to identify a theme. Rather their understanding of theme emerges from their engagement and thinking about the details of the text.
  • Readers’ understanding of a text can be enriched and developed by hearing what other readers notice and think.
  • Readers need to live and linger with multiple possibilities before committing themselves to one idea for the purpose of writing a paper.

All of these points are based on these readers’ understanding of how narratives are built. And all set strategies within the context and purpose of searching for meaning. That’s what was in these readers’ hearts. And that’s what I think should be in our teachers’ hearts as we talk to students about reading.

Heart Book c. 1550’s, The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

With many thanks to author Allen Woodman and all the readers who shared their thoughts on his story “Wallet.” Their comments can be found by clicking this link and scrolling down to the end of the post.

Inductive, Deductive, Reductive: What Kinds of Thinking Do We Ask of Students—and Why?

© Copyright 2003 by Jeanne Curran from

One of the patterns readers of this blog may have noticed cropping up in post after post is a repeated emphasis on details—on attending to details, connecting details, considering what details might mean. This emphasis stands apart from some of the talk about details found in classrooms, where details, at best, are valued as supporting evidence for ideas the reader has and, at worst, are seen as distracting our attention from the holy grail of the main idea.

I think this is unfortunate because details are, in fact, the building blocks of texts. They’re what writers use to construct and explore characters, situations, ideas and themes in both fiction and non-fiction. And they’re what readers use to construct whatever ideas or interpretations they have about what they read.

Experienced readers tend to do this work invisibly, noticing, processing and fitting details together to consider their possible meaning almost as automatically and fluently as they notice, process and fit words together to fluently make sense of a sentence. Many students, however, don’t even know that this is what readers do, or they haven’t reached the point yet where they’ve internalized the process enough to automatically do it.

Those students need practice in thinking inductively–that is, moving from the parts to the whole by first noticing the details the author provides then thinking about what those details might suggest or signify in order to build an idea or understanding from the bottom up. That’s the kind of thinking the 7th grade students in last week’s post used to build an understanding of the worlds they encountered at their dystopian novel stations. And it’s the kind of thinking I invited readers to try on two weeks ago with the opening pages of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars.

Main Idea Graphic OrganizerUnfortunately, though, too many of the tools we give our students, such as the graphic organizer here, don’t help because they require deductive thinking, which asks students to move from the whole to the parts, coming up with an idea then searching for details to prove the idea’s validity. These organizers might help students develop the habit of supporting ideas with evidence, but they don’t explicitly show students how to construct an idea in the first place, which for many is the more difficult work.

The other problem with top-down, deductive-based organizers is that they frequently encourage reductive thinking, with characters reduced to one or more single-word traits or with rich and nuanced multi-faceted texts reduced to a lone main-idea sentence. That’s not to say it’s not important to get a sense of a character in a narrative. But we do so not to pin them down with an adjective, like a butterfly in a display case, but to think about how those traits help or hinder them from dealing with whatever problems the writer has put in their path, and to be able to better see how they do or don’t change as they grapple with those problems. And we do all that, in turn, because attending to how characters change and develop as they wrestle with their problems can help us think about what aspect of the human condition the writer might be exploring—a.k.a. the theme.

Thus, thinking about a character’s so-called traits is the first step in the long process of meaning making,  not an isolated end to itself as these worksheets seem to suggest. Better, I think, are supports that push student thinking across a text, like the chart that teacher Cory Gillette designed to help her students think about characters within the context of the plot, which consultant Stephanie Parsons‘s shares and discusses on her blog. Or like this one from What Readers Really Do, which supports inductive thinking by inviting students to notice and connect patterns of recurring details in order to question or develop an idea about what they might possibly mean (filled in here with the thoughts of a fifth grade class reading Patricia Reilly Giff‘s Pictures of Hollis Woods):

© Copyright 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton from What Readers Really Do (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

Once again, in the end, it seems to come down to purpose. If you want to help build your students’ ability to support their ideas with details or to have a baseline read of a character as a starting point for tracking their development, then a graphic organizer based on deductive thinking could conceivably help. But it will do nothing to help those students who struggle with coming up with an idea in the first place. They need a tool that supports and makes visible the inductive process of thinking that experienced readers invisibly use. And they need lots of practice for that kind of thinking to become automatic and fluent.

The good news, though, is that the very same details they notice and use to inductively construct an idea can subsequently be used to support the idea in a deductive way. The bad news is that too often I think we ask students to complete these kinds of worksheets and graphic organizers when they don’t really need to—i.e., when they’re already doing the work automatically, which is the ultimately goal, or when they’re not ready because they need to experience the invisible inductive step before making the deductive one.

What doesn’t seem a valid enough purpose, however, is to have them fill in worksheets so that we can collect and arm ourselves with data. There are plenty of other more authentic ways to formatively assess what a reader can do, from conferences to formal accountable talk circles to genuine reading responses. The trick is to find opportunities and tools that give you a window on a child’s mind as it attempts to make meaning without dulling or destroying their engagement with reading through too much of what can seem like busywork—and to consider what thinking we’re asking them to do, along with that crucial why?

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

We all know how important it is to reflect and set goals for ourselves and our students, and to help students develop those same metacognitive capacities, I’m increasingly seeing student-written goals displayed in classrooms. “I need to infer more,” I spotted on an index card taped to a child’s desk. “My goal is to read Level Z books,” I spied on a bulletin board.

One the one hand, these student-generated goals speak to a student’s academic aspirations, which is certainly a good thing. But as a reader, I have to pause and wonder. Is that what constitutes success as a reader? To master the skill of inferring? To read a Level Z book? Are we somehow conveying, intentionally or not, that we read in order to climb the level ladder or infer a character trait, to fill out a worksheet on the main idea or make text-to-self connections?

For better or worse, levels, strategies and skills are frequently what’s most visible in our classrooms. Libraries are filled with bins of leveled books. Worksheets abound on identifying traits, the main idea and story mountain steps. Strategy charts hang on our walls and from clothes lines that stretch across our rooms. What tends to be far less visible, though, is why we really do all those things: why we take such pains to find a just right book, consider what kind of person a character is, make inferences and predictions. And in that vacuum, it’s perhaps no wonder that children come away thinking that what we value are the things they do see, which I think are actually the means to the end, not the end itself.

But what is the end and how do we make it visible? As I suggested in an earlier post, I think we could make our rooms and our students’ understanding of reading richer and deeper if we brought in the words of writers who read. Here, for example, is a blurb for Michael Ondaatje’s new book The Cat’s Table, by the writer Abraham Verghese that speaks to the deeper purposes of reading:

“When it was over, I had the sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life.”

And here are a few lines from Joyce Sutphen‘s poem, “Bookmobile,” that captures some of the real reasons that we read:

The librarian is busy, getting out

the inky pad and the lined cards.

I pace back and forth in the line,

hungry for the fresh bread of the page,

because I need something that will tell me

what I am . . . .

Of course we need to do more than hang these quotes on our classroom walls. We need to show children how a reader engages with a book in a way that allows them to come away with not just an understanding of a character but who they are themselves. We need to let them see how books can inform lives, giving us a wider, expanded vision of who we are, who we might become and how we might engage with the world.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I share ways of reframing reading workshop around these deeper purposes, with skills and strategies all firmly tied to more meaningful ends and time carved out to consider what a book might have to say to a student before they return it back to its bin and take another one out.

But there’s a simple step we all can take to make sure our students don’t think that all we value is their level or our worksheets: We can ask them if they love what they’re reading. We can ask if they’ve ever found a character who’s just like a best friend, if they’ve ever heard an echo of their own thoughts and feelings in the pages of a book, if they’ve ever come away understanding someone better than they had before. And we can share what we’ve gotten from books that’s allowed us to go forth into the world with more understanding and awareness of both ourselves and others.

For this, I believe, is what reading can give us. Not a letter on an level assessment or a score on a test, but a deeper understanding of the human condition and all the fallible, convoluted ways we try to make something of our lives. But most of our students will only see this if we offer them something more meaningful and visible to reach for than this when they pick up a book:

All Inferences Are Not Created Equal

Here in New York City, we’ve been thinking a lot about text complexity, especially about what makes a text complex. School networks have traded professional articles. Consultants have helped teachers create rubrics to assess the degree of complexity in a text. Yet oddly enough there’s been far less discussion about how we can instructionally support students to meet the demands of those texts.

My own sense is that, beyond denser print and more complicated syntax, text complexity is directly linked to how a writer conveys information, with complex texts revealing more information—about everything from the characters and themes to shifts in time and setting—indirectly. And this means that in order to access that information readers need to infer.

Given how critical inferring is, you’d think we’d have a boatload of strategies up our sleeves to help students do it. But all too often we rely on a variation of “It Says, I Know, and So,” which asks students to connect something in the text to their own experience or prior knowledge in order to infer what the writer might be saying indirectly. This will, indeed, work some of the time. But it doesn’t always work because inferences aren’t actually all made the same way and no single strategy will do.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the text I shared in last week’s post, Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio, which I used with a small group of students who struggled with reading increasingly complex texts. The book is dedicated to “Everyone who gives up a part of himself,” and the first chapter is titled “American Names.” Here’s the passage from that first chapter that gave the students so much trouble:

The passage requires an enormous amount of inferring to simply figure out what’s happened, let alone to start thinking about why. When the students first read it, they were able to infer that Miss Pringle was the teacher by connecting what it said in the text to what they knew from their own lives—i.e., that teachers usually have titles like Miss and often address students as ‘Class’. But the same “It Says, I Know, and So” kind of thinking also led them to infer that Arthur Rodriquez was another boy in the class, not the narrator. And visualizing, which we often teach as another strategy for inferring, wouldn’t have made things better.

Experienced readers, however, make sense of the passage by doing something else: They make connections within the text, not outside of it, connecting one detail to another like the dots in those old Connect the Dots games. Some readers, for instance, might work backwards to connect Miss Pringle’s line to the chapter title, the dedication and the first page, which focuses on the legacy of Arturo’s name. Others might work forward, through the rest of the paragraph, inferring what was done by whom to make things easier, who wasn’t asked about what, and how a person could be erased like a ‘used-up word on a chalkboard,’ in order to figure out what happened. These inferences would require readers to connect those lines to their prior knowledge of a highly specific sort. They’d need to draw on their understanding of how pronouns, sentence fragments and similes work to infer what each line meant. And then they have to connect each of the fragments to Miss Pringle’s statement to arrive at an understanding of what, exactly but indirectly, Miss Pringle did.

In this way, experienced readers infer by a process that could be expressed like this:

Text Detail + Text Detail + Text Detail = Meaning

rather than like this:

Text Detail + Prior Knowledge or Experience = Meaning

The students actually used the former process when, after realizing that Arthur was Arturo by making an intra-text connection, they inferred that Miss Pringle had changed many students’ names and that Alicia wasn’t happy about it. Had they used the latter process instead and connected those dark bruises to their prior knowledge, the chances are good that they would have inferred that Alicia had two black eyes. And had they not been connecting the detail dots to draft and revise their understanding as they read, they might also have been mystified by the exchange between Arturo and Alicia, not only not getting who was talking to whom but why Alice would say Alicia’s gone.

So if we want students to read complex texts—not just for the sake of doing so, but to fully engage in rich reading experiences that can inform and enhance their lives—we need to deepen the way we teach inferring and offer more precise strategies. We need to teach them how readers use their knowledge of pronouns and dialogue to steer through dramatized scenes, how they figure out what figurative language suggests, how they make sense of sentence fragments, and how they might use a title as a lens to interpret some of what follows.

Most importantly, though, we need to teach our students this: While they sometimes can figure out what a writer might be saying indirectly by connecting a detail to their own experience, that strategy alone might not help them know what that detail means in the context of the text. The only way to figure that out is to teach them to connect one detail to another, dot by dot by dot, until they see something they couldn’t see before—and they let out the ‘Oh’ sound of insight.