Using Text Sets to Help Students Build an Understanding of the World of a Book

Last week’s post, which looked at the way that well-intentioned scaffolds can sometimes undermine students’ ability to make meaning, reminded me of a 7th grade teacher I worked with several years ago. She’d designed her humanities curriculum around questions of power and how and why governments do or don’t control their citizens, and she decided to kick-off the class that year by having the students read Lois Lowry‘s The Giver.

The book was a great choice for the year’s themes. But many of her students read way below grade level, and after a day of being met by blank stares when she asked a question about the reading assignment, the teacher shifted into read-aloud mode, hoping that a fluent, dramatic reading would allow the class to comprehend a text they couldn’t navigate on their own.

The students loved the read aloud, quickly convening and settling down in the back of the room to listen. But when the teacher paused to ask questions, she was still met with blank stares. They had no ideas about what it might mean to be ‘released’, no thoughts about the rituals of sharing feelings at night and all the talk about assignments and rules. And so with discomfort, she began doing what I imagine each and every one of us has done at some point in a classroom: she kept prompting them with leading questions, pulling answers out of them like teeth. And if the answers still didn’t come, she’d tuck what she was looking for into a question—like, “Do you think it’s possible that released means killed?”—at which point you’d see light bulbs going off in the students’ heads as they entertained the idea she’d put out that they hadn’t been able to access themselves.

In my own evolution as a literacy coach, I was still a few years away from the Know/Wonder chart that Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed which, by helping students pay more attention to what they’re figuring out from a text and what they’re wondering or confused about, encourages them to read more closely and pick up more detail clues. That tool, I believe, would have helped those students focus on the questions the first page raises, such as “Why is Jonas beginning to be frightened?” and “Why was everyone so scared of a plane?” It would also have positioned them to be more attentive to details that begin to repeat and form patterns—e.g., the capitalization of jobs, like Pilots; the emphasis on naming feelings precisely; the loudspeaker voice that tells people what do; and the many, many references to rules. And those questions and patterns would, in turn, help them develop lines of inquiry and hunches about the kind of world they were in.

Back then, though, what the teacher and I both realized was that the students needed more than a fluent reader’s voice to make meaning of the text. If she wasn’t going to push and prod them—or simply spoon-feed them what they couldn’t infer—they needed time to practice the kind of thinking I shared in last week’s post as I drafted an understanding of the world of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars from the details the author gives.  And so we gathered up a handful of books, like the ones below, that were set in some future time and place, and we created stations the students would visit and rotate among. At each station they’d read a few pages with a small group or partner and consider the following questions, which we modeled with one of the books. Then they shared their ideas on chart paper to compare with other groups’ and partner’s findings.

  • Do you notice any differences between this world and ours?
  • Are there words that seem to mean something special or are capitalized or used strangely? What do you think they might mean?
  • Are there different groups of people in this world? If so, can you tell anything about them or their relationship to each other?
  • Is there anything that gives you a sense of the worlds’ rules or what they seem to believe in—even if you don’t fully understand yet?

   

At this point in my practice, I like giving students more room to attend to what they notice in a text rather than direct them to specific details through prompts like the questions above. But I continue to use text sets like this to help students see and practice how readers infer the world of a book through the author’s details—whether the text is futuristic, historical, fantasy or realistic. (And for students who need even more support, I’d use them in the kind of ‘stepped-up’ guided small group I shared in an earlier post.)

This kind of close reading inevitably makes students want to keep reading the books. And when they do, they read with more engagement and depth because they’re no longer dependent on someone else’s questions to uncover what’s suggested on the page. They also read with more confidence and sense of agency because they know what it feels like to catch the little clues that reveal the text’s deeper meaning.

Text Set Books: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy FarmerFeed by M. T. Anderson, The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbreck, The Copper Elephant by Adam Rapp, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.

Unraveling the Process of Meaning Making

Last week in “Seeing the Forest Through the Trees,” I attempted to set the strategies and skills we need to teach our students and the assessment we design to monitor their growth within the context of a larger enduring understanding. And to help with that, I shared the process of meaning making I explore in depth in What Readers Really Do, which breaks down the thinking work of reading into three distinct but related modes: comprehension, understanding and evaluation.

I defined each term in that post. But to demonstrate what I mean and hopefully provide a clearer, more concrete sense of each, let’s look at an excerpt from one of my all-time favorite books for teaching both reading and writing, Hey World, Here I Am! It’s ostensibly the notebook of a feisty but sensitive middle school girl named Kate Bloomfield, written by Jean Little with illustrations by Sue Truesdell, and it comprises short vignettes and prose poems like this:

If we define comprehension as the literal and inferential meaning a reader makes on a line-by-line or page-by-page basis, we can see that this piece doesn’t put a lot of demands on readers at the literal level, as Jean Little tells us explicitly how each character peels an orange.

At the inferential level, however, things get a little trickier. The details seem to suggest something about each character that is only accessible through inferring: that Kate may be a neat person more generally and Emily an impulsive one as shown through the way each handles an orange. We might also infer that Emily admires Kate from her exclamatory comment. But what are we to do with the last line? Why would Kate say what she does? Does it mean that she wants to be admired or be better at something than Emily? Does she wish she wasn’t such a perfectionist? Does she idolize Emily, no matter what she does? What, oh what, does it mean?

As readers entertain these questions, they move from comprehension to the realm of understanding—that is, from the surface level of the text to those deeper layers where ideas and themes reside. And they make that move, unconsciously or not, because they’re aware that this piece is about more than just oranges. Jean Little is revealing something here about each girl and their relationship to each other and perhaps even something more universal about the idea or theme of friendship.

To understand that, we’d have to take what we comprehended in this section and connect it to other pages and sections, holding all those questions in our heads and reading closely to see if we noticed any patterns in the way the girls interacted. Are there other times, for instance, when the two girls compete? Are they opposites in more ways than peeling oranges? Is their admiration mutual or lopsided? Do the seemingly neat and impulsive streaks that we’ve noticed here reappear? And if so, do they impact the two girls’ friendship in any way?

In this way, readers fit parts of a text together, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, in order to ‘see’ something they couldn’t in any single piece. Based on what patterns they noticed and how they fit them together, readers would draft an understanding (which we also can call an interpretation) of what they think Jean Little might be trying to say about Kate and Emily’s friendship, which, in turn, says something about friendship in general.

This kind of thinking seems too different from the work of comprehending a single line or page to use the same word to describe it, which is why it seems helpful for both students and teachers to name them as separate but connected modes of thinking. And while experienced readers and even some students engage in the work of understanding automatically, many need our help in making it visible in order to partake in it, too, with instruction provided that encourages students to be on the look-out for patterns and to make connections within the text in order to interpret.

Additionally, many readers need to have the last step in the process made visible as well. For once readers have constructed an understanding of what they think the author is saying across the whole text, not just on one page, they consider whether that understanding holds any real weight for them in their lives. Does it affirm, expand, inform, refute or challenge what they already know about friendship? Is it something they want to hold on to and remember? Is it something they want to discard or disagree with, which is every reader’s right?

Dorothy and I call this part of the process evaluation, and I believe it’s as vital for readers to engage in as comprehension and understanding because it’s in the act of evaluating that we truly take stock of what reading gives us. We draft and revise our understanding of a text as we fit the pieces we notice together. Then we take what we have come to understand to draft and revise our understanding of ourselves as we fit the text into our lives. As Kate of the perfectly peeled oranges says to her guidance counselor near the end of Hey World, Here I Am!:

I’m putting myself together, Miss McIntyre. But it is like a jigsaw puzzle. I keep on finding new pieces.

Reading helps us put ourselves together by offering us new takes on the world and the human condition. But this can only happen if we acknowledge that purpose and have both an instructional framework and a vision of reading that explicitly supports it.  Breaking the complicated process of meaning-making into these three components helps. It also allows us, as teachers, to assess how much time and instruction we really spend on each part of the process—and to try to redress any imbalance as we continue to plan and move forward, tying whatever strategies we offer to these more meaning-full strategic ends.

Comprehension + Understanding + Evaluation = Meaning