The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

From You Can't Scare Me, I'm a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream

From You Can’t Scare Me, I’m a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream

How Much Do We Truly Expect Students to Understand?

Unhappy Schoolboy Studying In Classroom

During my week in Reggio Emilia, my fellow study group members and I had several opportunities to speak through translators to our Italian colleagues to share observations and ask questions about some of the incredible practices we saw. I was also curious to know what our hosts thought about some of the practices we hold dear and whether or not they confronted some of the problems that we faced, which prompted me to ask questions.

Reggio AtelierHaving visited one of their new elementary schools, for instance, where there was much writing on display, I asked what they thought about craft lessons. This necessitated a bit of back and forth between me, the translator and the teachers who wanted to make sure they understood what I meant by craft. When that was clarified they said that, yes, they would invite students to study craft. But they reminded us of something else they’d said when we’d all marveled at the magnificent ateliers or art studios that are at the center of each school: “[They] do not offer art and technique in order for children to become artists, but in order for them not to become slaves.”

It’s a line I’ve pondered about a lot, along with their answer to another question I posed. I asked if they ever saw children, like the ones I described in my two last posts, who are able to read a text fluently but seemingly don’t understand what it says. And if so, what do they do. Again the question caused some back and forth between the translator and the teachers, though finally they said that they do occasionally see that, and when they do, they refer the child to specialists in order to determine the root cause.

At the time, the answer seemed insufficient—and having been astounded by so much of what we saw, some of us wondered whether here, in the States, we’d actually done more thinking about reading and all that’s involved in comprehending than our Italian colleagues, who were just embarking on lower schools, had. But increasingly I found myself thinking of all the stories and videos they’d shared of students wrestling with ideas, whether it was the existence of negative numbers or how to write certain letters. In each case, the students passionately, thoughtfully—and sometimes even heatedly—shared their own provisional theories about whatever was being explored, which they then would test out, revise and develop as they dug deeper into their study and listened to their classmates.

No Judgment ZoneReminded of that, I found myself wondering whether their constructivist approach to learning—where students don’t consume information but actually build their own knowledge—made some of what we see here moot. Every single child in Reggio was engaged in questioning and developing theories about whatever it was they were exploring, and children were confidently  voicing ideas without fear of the teacher’s judgement. In those rooms, it seems possible that no one without some cognitive glitch would read without wondering what the author might be saying, and no one would be passively calling out words without thinking about what those words meant. And the teachers would both expect and trust that even if the students’ initial theories were far-fetched or even faulty, the process of sharing and revising ideas would eventually lead everyone to understand more in an age-appropriate way.

I wonder, though, if we expect the same. We certainly expect students to learn and know things, and we expect them to perform. But in our race to meet the Standards, move students up levels and complexity bands, and answer our close reading questions, do we really care how deeply they understand as long as they get the right answer? And do we really trust and expect they can get there without our firm, directing hand?

If You Lived with the Iroquois CoverWith these questions in mind, a group of fourth grade teachers I’ve been working with decided to put understanding front and center by inviting students to acknowledge what they didn’t understand as a place from which to start learning. To do this we chose a nonfiction text, If You Lived with the Iroquois by Ellen Levine, aware that, particularly with nonfiction, there was a big difference between knowing the facts and truly understanding them. Then gathering a small group of students on the rug, we gave each child a copy of the book, asked them to turn to the following page and to read thinking about not what they learned but what they’d didn’t fully understand.

If You Lived with the Iroquois Page

Right away a student said that he didn’t understand the sentence about the Iroquois using what nature provided, and once he’d revealed that, the others all agreed. They also didn’t know what a ‘kilt-like skirt’ was, and when I asked about the word ‘tanned,’ they said they weren’t so sure about that either—unless it meant laying the skins in the sun to tan. We then invited the students to look through the book, seeing if there were any places, either in the text or the pictures, that might help them understand what they hadn’t. This led one girl to discover a whole section on tanning a few pages later and several students to develop an understanding of a kilt-like skirt from the illustrations.

We went on then to read the section about tanning, which was hard for them to fully grasp. But at some point the boy who’d originally cited the line about using what nature provided said he now thought he knew what that meant: The Iroquois used material they could find outside, like deer skin and brains, moss and corncobs to make what they needed. And another student, going back to the previous page, added on that porcupine quills, which they used for decoration, also came from nature.

If You Lived with the Iroquois 2

That led one girl to ask, “Did they have stores back then?” “What do you think?” we asked, and after flipping through the pages one last time to see if they spotted any sign of stores or manufactured goods, they all decided they didn’t think so, which they thought was pretty amazing and made them curious to learn more.

The teachers and I all believed that the students left the group that day with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Iroquois than they’d had if we’d set them up to take notes, gather facts, or fill out a worksheet. And we sent out a message to them that I fear students don’t always hear: We care more about your thinking than your answers, and we truly want you to understand—so much so that we’ll honor what you don’t understand as the place to begin exploring and will carve out time to give everyone the chance to reveal their fledgling thinking and then use talk, not to prove a claim, but to grow and develop ideas. And by trusting and expecting you to understand, you will come to expect that, too, and accept nothing less. And that means you’ll never be a slave to someone else’s thinking.

Reveal, Listen, Understand

A Tale of Two Students: More Findings from Research Conferences

Girl and boy reading book isolated on white background

Piggybacking on the other week’s post, which looked at what a student was doing with her ‘just right’ book, I share here the stories of two students, both at the same level and reading the same book to continue to explore what we can learn by using a conference to research the kinds of thinking students are bringing to texts.

MarisolThe students were two fourth grade girls who were both reading Marisol, an American Girl Today book written by Gary Soto. Both had also participated in two small groups I wrote about previously, in which I and the teachers I worked with discovered that the students couldn’t take on the work of considering what the author might be trying to show us through the details she had chosen because they were thrown for a loop by the pronouns.

With both girls I began by asking if there was anything they were working on as readers to focus the conference on the process of reading rather than the contents of the book. And when each girl looked at me askance, I followed that up by saying, “For instance, are there any questions you’re thinking about or anything in particular you’ve noticed?” That clarification enabled the first girl, Yesenia, to say, “Oh yeah, I’m trying to figure out why Marisol is moving.”

I applauded her for asking a why question, which are always great thinking tools. But not knowing whether this information was stated directly or indirectly, I’m not sure if it’s something Yesenia missed or something that hadn’t yet been revealed. So I pose another question: “Is Marisol trying to figure that out, too, or is it just you?”

“No, Marisol doesn’t know either. She’s asked her parents before, but here it is again on the top of the page,” she says, pointing to a line that reads, “Even though I didn’t know where we were moving. Or really why.

ResearchKnowing that Marisol is as much in the dark about the move as Yesenia is suggests that a reason hasn’t yet been provided. So I ask if she thinks she’s found any clues that might answer the question.

Yesenia pauses for a moment then slowly says, “No, but I do think I know how she feels. She really loves her house and her room and doesn’t want to leave it. Like here,” she says, turning back a page. “Her friend Victor wanted her to come out and play but she wanted to stay in her room—not like her other friend Becky, who has to stay inside because she’s in trouble, but because she knows she’ll have to leave it soon.”

Quickly scanning the page spread myself, I’m able to see how Yesenia has used the information to support the idea she’s developing about Marisol’s feelings. And curious to see how she processes new text, I ask her to pick up where she left off, which sends her back to the paragraph below the line she pointed to earlier.

Marisol Excerpt 1

Reading over her shoulder again, I’m aware that the paragraph holds several vocabulary challenges. But instead of expending too much time on words like ‘wallowing’ and ‘self-pity,’ neither of which she might know, she pronounces them the best she can and keeps reading to the end of the paragraph, at which point I ask her what she thinks is happening as a way of assessing how much meaning she could make despite the challenging words.

“Well, I think she’s feeling bad about moving and so she decides to practice her dancing because she knows it will make her feel better. But now I’m wondering if she’ll have to move before her big performance. That will make her even sadder.”

Yesenia has gotten the gist of the passage. And she’s connected what she just learned to what she already knows, revising and adjusting her understanding of the text as she encounters new information, which in turn yields new questions. And after naming that for her, I decide to instructionally offer a next step by saying, “I think that’s another great question to ask, along with how she deals with it, if that actually happens.” Yesenia nods her head in agreement as I move on to Melaysia, who coincidentally enough is at the same level, reading the same book.

When I ask my conference kick-off questions, Melaysia shrugs and says no; she’s not doing anything special as a reader. And so after complimenting her on her honesty, I ask her to turn to the page she’s on and read some aloud, beginning right where she left off, which is the last paragraph before the line break below:

Marisol Excerpt 2

Knowing that Melaysia has struggled with pronouns, I stop her after that paragraph to see how she’s making sense with those. “Do you know who the ‘I’ is here,” I ask, to which she replies, “That’s Marisol.” And how about the ‘she’? Do you know who that is?” “Miss Mendoza?” she says without a lot of confidence, which prompts me to ask the indispensable question: “What made you think that?”

A long silence ensues, in which Melaysia keeps her eyes focused on her lap. And so I remind her of what we discovered in our earlier group: that an ‘I’ wouldn’t talk about herself as a ‘she’, and the pronoun almost always refers to the last non-I person who’s been mentioned. Then I ask her to take another look, and this time she says, “It is Miss Mendoza.”

But when I ask her who Miss Mendoza is, she hesitates again. “I think she just stopped by,” she says, “so maybe she’s like a neighbor or something.”

maybe“Maybe’s always a good thinking word,” I say before asking if there’s anything else she thought about Miss Mendoza, in the hope that she might have noticed the word ‘student,’ which, combined with the preceding exchange of dialogue, provides a clue about Marisol’s feelings for her. But again Melaysia says nothing.

So I ask her to continue reading, which she does with a degree of fluency until she hits the word ‘enchilada,’ which she spends some time trying to sound out. When she’s finally able to pronounce the word, I ask her if she knows what it means and she says she doesn’t. And when, after reading to the end of the page, I ask her how this section connects to what she read before, she says that she’s forgotten. Spending so much mental energy on a single word made her loose the thread of a story she had only a tentative hold on to begin with.

As the teachers and I pondered the implications of these conferences, we came to some conclusions. Melaysia needed to learn how to make strategic decisions about when to read over an unknown word for the sake of holding on to the story. She also needed lots of opportunities to meta-cognitively talk about her thinking and to more deliberately draft and revise her understanding. And she could benefit from holding on to a question or wondering, as Yesenia did, which we could call a text-based strategy—i.e., a move a reader makes that helps them stick to the text and read more attentively.

Put your plan into action, words on blackboard.WIth that we had a plan of action: more small group and one-on-one work with Melaysia, maybe using an easier text until the thinking—and her confidence—took hold, and a follow-up conference with Yesenia to see if she’s able to maintain the same level of thinking as the pages accrue. It took some time to make these decisions. But having a clearer sense of what our next instructional steps could be made the time worthwhile.

Just What Exactly Are Students Doing with Their Just Right Books?

Just Right Book StickerIt’s January, and in many schools around the country, teachers are assessing their students’ reading levels for the second or third time this year to monitor their students’ growth and determine their independent reading level. I’ve written before about what I see as the impact of over-emphasizing levels on a student’s identity as a reader. Yet here’s an additional problem. Administering these assessments is time-consuming, and many a teacher must put conferring and even instruction on hold for a while in order to complete them. But given how much time we devote to this, how much time do we actually spend seeing what students are doing with those books once we’ve determine their level?

That’s not to say that we don’t talk to students about their books when we confer. But usually we’re in teacher, not researcher, mode, talking to students just long enough to find an entry point for instruction—priding ourselves, in fact, on how quickly we can get in and out. Rarely do we take the time to thoroughly get a handle on a child’s thinking, especially on the kinds of thinking the Common Core is expecting students to engage in independently. Yet it seems to me just as important to know what students are doing when they’re reading that ‘just right’ book as it is to know what level basket to send them to in the library.

To this end, I’ve been recommending that we at least occasionally spend as much time researching what students are doing with their books as we do assessing their levels—and that we resist jumping into to teach until we’ve gotten a clearer picture of what’s going on in a student’s head. When I’ve done this with teachers, we often discover that for every student who’s doing some interesting thinking—paying attention to how characters are changing, for example, and developing hunches about why—another student is completely lost in a book that’s supposedly just right.

KatieKazooCoverTake the case of Meera, a fourth grade student I recently conferred with. Meera was reading Open Wide, a Level M book in the Katie Kazoo Switcheroo series by Nancy Krulik, which I hadn’t read. Rather than asking about the book—which often leads students to launch into a retelling I cannot possibly assess for accuracy—I began by asking her if there was anything in particular she was working on as a reader. This question sometimes perplexes students, but Meera immediately replied that she was trying to picture the story in her head, which made her teacher, who was observing me, smile. I acknowledged how important visualizing was then asked her to turn to the page she was currently on and read a bit from where she’d left off.

Meera turned to page 58, which was approximately three-quarters of the way through the book, and fluently read the following page out loud:

KatieKazooExcerpt

I followed along as Meera read, not to check for fluency or miscues, but to get a feel for the kinds of demands this page put on a reader in order to better assess how Meera was negotiating those. Here, for instance, the action is explained explicitly, with little inferring required, yet there seemed to be a disconnect between the words and the picture, with the dentist appearing in the illustration but not in the words. So explaining to Meera that I was a little confused because I hadn’t read the book, I asked her if she could tell me what was going on.

“They’re at the dentist,” Meera said, “and the dentist isn’t being very nice.”

“Can you tell me who’s at the dentist?” I asked.

KatieKazoo“Katie, Matthew and Emma,” she said. Then she turned to the picture. “That’s Emma,” she explained, pointing to the girl with the glasses. “And that’s the dentist, and that’s Matthew,” she added, pointing to the boy with the hose. Then she flipped back several pages to show me a picture of Katie.

Her reliance on the illustrations combined with my own uncertainty about what was really going on, made me suspect that something was not quite right here. And so I plunged on. “I definitely see the dentist in the picture, but I didn’t hear him mentioned as you read. Can you tell me how you know from the words that he’s there?”

Meera turned to the previous page to show me a line from the following passage, in which the dentist is mentioned. “Here,” she said, pointing to the line, “‘Dr. Sang! That’s not nice,’ she hissed.”

KatieKazooExcerpt2

My eyes quickly scanned the sentences around this, and by following the dialogue, I was now quite sure that Meera had missed something significant. What I didn’t know, though, is whether what she’d missed had been stated explicitly or had to be inferred, which would suggest different instructional paths. And so rather than jumping in to teach with perhaps a reminder about monitoring comprehension, I told her how nicely she’d read the passage and then asked if I could borrow the book in order to get a better handle on why her comprehension had broken down in the first place.

Flipping back to the beginning, I found what I suspected: that Katie Kazoo wasn’t called Switcheroo for nothing. As the author explained explicitly on page 14, whenever Katie wished something, a magic wind would suddenly appear, “so strong, it could blow her right out of her body. . . and into someone else’s!“—in this case, Dr. Sang’s. And while the scene where the magic wind reappears to transform Katie into the dentist required a bit of inferring, there were lots of other explicit clues that pointed to the change.

Meera’s teacher and I mulled over the instructional implications of this in order to come up with a course of action. While Meera was ostensibly trying to visualize, she was missing all kinds of textual clues that would allow the movie she was constructing in her head to actually reflect the words on the page. So before she could monitor her comprehension, she needed to better experience how to build it by reading more attentively and actively. That would entail keeping track of what she was learning and what she was confused or wondering about in order to read forward with more purpose and connect one page to the next. And to help her do this more deliberately, we decided to put her in a small group so that she could verbalize what she was learning from a common text and what she was wondering about.

enfant consultation pédiatreIt’s important to note here is that this problem hadn’t shown up in her reading assessment, perhaps because the passage she’d read was so much shorter or didn’t involve something as improbable as a magic wind. It also wouldn’t show up in the data provided by other kinds of formative assessments—though it could be the root cause of whatever inabilities the data did reveal. It could only be discerned by a teacher who was trying to make a student’s thinking work visible by carefully listening, researching and probing before deciding what to teach.

It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison, used by permission. http://www.facebook.com/JoelRobisonPhotography

Last month I plunged into nonfiction by first exploring what readers really do when they read it and then looking at some of the challenges it poses at the level of comprehension—i.e., what the words literally and inferentially mean line by line and page by page. There are many challenges for readers at this level, especially when we move from books packaged by educational publishers, like Mondo and Rigby, to trade books. At the risk of over-generalizing, the former tends to maximize the accessibility of the content, with text features that support easy fact retrieval and explicitly state the sub-topics. Trade books, on the other hand, frequently operate in less straightforward ways and often require far more inferring to fully comprehend.

They also have more of what I call an authorial presence. That is, we feel the presence of the author more strongly in trade books, whether it’s Mark Kurlansky who begins his fascinating book The Story of Salt with an anecdote from his own life or Seymour Simon who starts his book Volcanoes not with a standard definition or introduction of words like ‘magma,’ but with the ancient Romans and Hawaiians who worshipped gods of fire they associated with volcanoes.

Like many of the nonfiction authors I’ve looked at this summer—Kathleen V. Kudlinski, Henry Petroski, Eugene Linden, and Neil Degrasse Tyson—these writers take us on the kind of journey of thought I described in my first nonfiction post, in which, as writer Alan Lightman puts it, “the facts are important but never enough.” These writers use facts not just to inform us but to explore ideas, and they’ve deliberately chosen and arranged the facts in a particular way to help us, as readers, ‘see’ and consider those ideas.

Doing this, however, requires a kind of mind work that’s different enough from comprehending a sentence to warrant being called something else—which is why Dorothy Barnhouse and I differentiate this kind of thinking from comprehension by calling it understanding. It’s inferring and interpreting across a whole text, not just with a line or a page, which adds another layer of challenge. So what, as teachers, do we need to do to help our students not just comprehend but engage in understanding as well?

We can begin by sharing what Donna Santman calls in her great book for middle school teachers Shades of Meaning a “reading secret”: that there are issues and ideas hiding in the texts students read and one of their main jobs as readers is to think about the ideas the writer might be exploring and how they develop across a text.

For some students, with some texts, this is enough. In Thinking Through Genre, for instance, Heather Lattimer recounts what happened in a 6th grade classroom studying feature articles when, instead of asking students to find the main idea, she asked them to simply jot down the details that stood out for them and, from that, think about what the writer might be wanting them to understand. Rather than groaning, as they did whenever they heard the words ‘main idea,’ they plunged into the text and came up with an array of fresh, insightful thinking.

Many students, however, need more support to engage in the work of understanding. Unfortunately, though, many of the strategies we offer don’t really help. To see what I mean, let’s look more closely at Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of Salt, with its wonderful illustrations by S. D. Schindler:

A typical read aloud or guided reading lesson might begin with asking the students to predict what they think they’ll discover in the book by looking at the front cover. This might lead some students to say that they were going to learn about salt around the world and through the ages because the people on the cover appear to be from different times and places—though many a student might simply say they were going to learn about salt.

We then might do a picture walk, which might confirm that initial prediction about salt throughout the ages, as students spotted mummies, knights and people dressed in togas. But many of the pictures are baffling, such as this one:

We might also do a text-feature walk, zooming in on the section titles and headings as a way of anticipating the information the text contains. As you can see, though, from the title above, this might not get students very far either because many of the titles are as baffling as the pictures. But the bigger problem is that relying on text features encourages students to see sections as discrete entities, not as parts of a whole, and as such text-feature walks can work against the idea of the text as a journey where the whole point is discovering more than you expected as you pay attention to the turns and twists and connect detail to detail.

We also ask students to scan and skim to find the main idea, which could conceivably yield this sentence from the last page of the book: “Salt shaped the history of the world.”

Like the prediction about the book containing information about salt throughout the ages, this statement does seem to circle what we might call the main idea. But it only goes so far. It doesn’t get to the deeper exploration of why or how salt shaped the world, which can only be gotten by going on the journey and reading closely. We can, though, help students do this by using the same strategy that Dorothy and I offer students when they read fiction: noticing patterns and considering what the writer might be trying to show us through them.

Inviting students to think about patterns—whether it’s a word, a detail, an image, an event or a structural device that repeats—could help students, for instance, notice how many times the word ‘power’ appears. And noticing that, they’d be better positioned to ‘see’ how other sections involve power, even when the word isn’t used. Noticing this might also lead them to discover patterns within the power pattern, as there are several stories about salt being used as a means of control and others where salt is an agent of liberation. And that’s just from noticing one word. There are also recurring stories about how our need for salt led to innovations and stories about things—streets, cities, food—named after salt. There’s even a pattern in the book’s structure, with the book beginning and ending in the present, and the past sandwiched in between.

Any of these patterns would act as an in-road to the deeper ideas that infuse the book, which is why it’s not necessary for students to ‘see’ the exact same patterns that we’ve seen. Just the act of noticing patterns gets students thinking—for as the writer Norman Maclean says, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” And that’s what happens on a journey when we set off into the unknown. Our senses are heightened as we take in the sights and go off on detours that surprisingly lead to places full of meaning. All that’s needed is an open mind—and a strategy that supports close reading.

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 1)

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing the writer Junot Diaz give the keynote address at NCTE. His speech was a fierce and impassioned testament to both the power of the written word and of teachers to change student lives, and I left the hall determined to read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which re-invents the American immigrant experience through the eyes of a nerdy Dominican boy who’s landed in New Jersey.

I wouldn’t be writing this, however, if I simply read the book. As it was, it sat unopened on my shelf for more weeks than I care to admit to because I was nervous about reading it. I’d heard that it was filled with Spanish, and not knowing Spanish, I was afraid I’d be frustrated by my inability to understand. And so the book sat there until I decided not to let fear rule my reading life. I cracked it open and immediately fell in love with the characters and Diaz’s sentences. And as for the Spanish, it wasn’t a problem. I could often get the gist from the context, and when that failed, I simply read on, so engaged and enamored with the voice and the story that those unknown words didn’t matter.

I share this because I think there’s a lesson about vocabulary here. Of course, we want to build our students’ word banks and foster an appreciation of language, especially for those learning English. But if we also want to build resilient readers who feel confident of their ability to tackle a text, we may want to reconsider how much vocabulary we introduce up front, aware that too much pre-teaching may actually undermine our students’ ability to become strong, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning unless we know all the words.

What’s needed, I think, is a balance between helping students acquire vocabulary  and helping them become stronger readers—and a recognition that those two things are not exactly the same. In a recent post, for instance, I looked at the opening of the nonfiction book Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd, which uses the word ‘pool’ on the very first page in a way I suspect many children are unfamiliar with. We could, of course, pre-teach the word so they don’t think starfish live in swimming pools. But if we use a text-based Know/Wonder chart and model its use with the first page, we could question the word instead of pre-teach it—as in “I know that starfish live in pools because the writer says that right here, but I wonder if this means swimming pools since I’ve never seen a starfish in a pool.” This would invite students to look out for clues in both the text and the pictures, with a dictionary consulted afterwards if more clarification was needed. And that hunt for clues would greatly increase the likelihood of them remembering the other meaning of the word.

To help students discover what I did when I finally dove into Oscar Wao, I also recommend that teachers give students the opportunity to see how much they can figure out from the words they do know, without getting hung up on the ones they don’t. Here, for instance, is the beginning of an article, “Can Animals Think” by Eugene Linden, that a 6th grade English Language Learner teacher was preparing to have her class read as part of a unit on animal intelligence:

The teacher worried there were too many words the students didn’t know and that those words would bog them down and impact their comprehension. But rather that pre-teaching them, we decided to see what would happen if we asked the students to work with a partner and highlight all the parts they could understand, which looked something like this:

She then asked the partners to re-read the paragraph with just the highlighted words, and in virtually every case, the students ‘got’ what was being described in a way that allowed them to continue engaging with the larger ideas in the article—and they were even able to posit the meaning of some of the unknown words. Then after they’d finished the article and discussed what they thought the writer had to say about the intelligence of animals, the teacher asked the class to vote on a handful of words they’d like to know, and those words became the focus of their vocabulary work for the week.

Depending on the word, this vocabulary work might include one or more of the strategies and tools Janet Allen offers in her wonderful book Inside Words, such as the Frayer Model, which asks students to think about how a new vocabulary word is similar and different to other words they know, and concept ladders, which invite students to dig into an abstract noun to better understand its causes, effects, uses and nuances. In this way, students have strategies that both help them learn vocabulary in a deep, more lasting way and to navigate texts with unfamiliar words with more resilience and confidence, knowing that that happens to every reader every once in a while.

Of course, there are times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. And so in Part 2 I’ll share how a group of high school teachers I recently worked with made decisions about which words to pre-teach and why as they prepared to incorporate more diverse complex texts into their curriculum. For now, though, I think what’s important to remember is that teaching students words is not the same as teaching them how to read—and that students need strategies and tools for both, along with lots of time to practice.

Applying the Process of Meaning Making to Nonfiction: A Look at Comprehension

In What Readers Really DoDorothy Barnhouse and I break down the work of meaning making into three strands or modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation. We define comprehension as the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line by line and page by page. Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes. And evaluation occurs when a reader critiques a text and/or considers what personal or social value it has for him.

What Readers Really Do explores what these modes look like in fiction, but readers engage in them in nonfiction, too. And in both fiction and nonfiction, readers move between these modes fluidly and often recursively; that is, they don’t wait until they’ve comprehended everything to engage in understanding. Instead they braid their comprehension, understanding and evaluation together as they read to construct meaning.

It is, however, useful to explore each mode of thinking separately to get a feel for the challenges of each. And so this week, I want to explore what’s involved in comprehending nonfiction. Some of my own awareness of the comprehension challenges students face comes from the educator and writer Tony Stead, whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. In Reality Checks, for instance, Tony explores how students can answer questions without fully comprehending what they’ve read, demonstrating how this happens through the following text, which I’ll ask you to read then answer some questions:

My hunch is that you answered those questions ‘correctly’ by automatically drawing on your knowledge of syntax—despite the fact that the words were all nonsense. And students frequently do the same, using their syntactical knowledge to provide us with answers they don’t really comprehend.

Students also often impose their own knowledge—or what they think they know—on a text without reading attentively enough to see how that does or doesn’t match up to what the writer is saying. Last year, for example, I worked with a group of fifth grade boys who were researching and writing opinion pieces about the benefits of video games. They’d found a great article that explained how video games helped build their users’ visual skills. But when asked what they thought visual skills meant, they said it was the ability to read the smallest line on an eye exam chart. They’d plucked the fact, correctly recognizing they could use it to support their opinion, without really comprehending it. And having gotten what they wanted, they glossed over the part where the writer explored those skills more.

On top of all that, nonfiction texts often require a lot of inferring, which I noticed as I began to explore the demands that some of the Standards’ Text Exemplars place on students. Here, for example is an excerpt of the grade K-1 exemplar Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd:

Starfish live in the sea. Starfish live deep down in the sea. Starfish live in pools by the sea.

Some starfish are purple. Some starfish are pink.

. .  . Starfish have many arms. The arms are called rays. Starfish have arms, but no legs. Starfish have feet, but no toes. They glide and slide on tiny tube feet. They move as slowly as a snail.

The basket star looks like a starfish, but it is a little different. It doesn’t have tube feet. It moves with its rays. It has rays that go up and rays that go down.

Tiny brittle stars are like the basket star. They hide under rocks in pools by the sea.

The mud star hides in the mud. It is a starfish. It has tiny tube feet.

Setting aside the use of the word ‘pool’ and the puzzling thought of arms having feet, readers must infer that basket stars aren’t actually starfish. Then they must infer that, being like basket stars, brittle stars aren’t starfish either because they don’t have tube feet, which—another inference—is part of what distinguishes a starfish. Only through those inferences would students be able to meet the Reading Information Standard 3, which asks that first graders “Describe the connection between two pieces of information in a text.” And none of the standard comprehension strategies would help them, beyond a generic call to infer.

So the question for teachers is, what are we to do? We don’t, of course, have to use the exemplars; they are there as examples of the kinds of texts we should be exposing students to, not as an actual reading list. Nor do we have to meet Standard RI3 with every text we share. Instead, we could use a book like this to complicate and deepen students’ understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, since many young students think that nonfiction always has ‘real’ photographs and only fiction has illustrations.

But if we want students to truly comprehend texts like this, we need instruction that helps them be more inquiring and aware of what they don’t get. And this is how a text-based Know/Wonder chart can be as useful in fiction as in nonfiction, as it encourages students to acknowledge their confusion and connect details of a text together in order to infer. Thus students might wonder if starfish really lived in swimming pools, if basket and brittle stars were or weren’t starfish, and why their limbs were called arms, not legs. And they’d be reading forward and thinking backward to consider possible answers.

As I wrote in “The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut,” the challenge for us, as teachers, is in letting students wrestle with this, trading ideas and going back to the text to look for evidence and clues, instead of intervening in order to clear their confusion up. Letting students wrestle with the text like this engages them in what my math colleagues sometimes call a “productive struggle.” Kay Merseth, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes productive struggle this way:

. . . it’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the fact of not knowing exactly how to proceed.

The worst that might happen if we didn’t step in is continued confusion, which could be remedied by inquiring further and reading another text (as I, myself, actually felt compelled to do just to make sure my inference was right). And the benefits of struggling are huge. Researchers at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore have discovered that students who struggle with problem solving actually retain what they learn far more than those who haven’t. That means that students might comprehend Starfish more than we comprehended “The Dodlings.” And if, in the end, we do ask students questions, their answers will add up to more than the equivalent of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”