From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings


A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:


While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:


Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.



When Is a Scaffold Not a Scaffold?

Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital

© D. A. Wagner 2012,

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on how much has changed in the educational landscape and my own thinking since What Readers Really Do came out two and a half years ago. And having also spent some time last month working with Lucy West, Toni Cameron and the amazing team of math coaches that form the Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities, I want to share some new thoughts I’ve been having about the whole idea of scaffolding.

From what I could gather from a quick look at (yes, I admit it) Wikipedia, the idea of scaffolding goes back to the late 1950’s when the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner used it to describe young children’s language acquisition. And by the 1970’s Bruner’s idea of scaffolding became connected with Vygotsky’s concept of a child’s zone of proximal development and the idea that “what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow.”

Even before the Common Core Standards, teachers have been encouraged to scaffold by using scaffolding moves like those listed below (which were culled from several websites):

  • Activating students’ prior knowledge
  • Introducing a text through a short summary or synopsis
  • Previewing a text through a picture walk
  • Teaching key vocabulary terms before reading
  • Creating a context for a text by filling in the gaps in students’ background knowledge
  • Offering a motivational context (such as visuals) to pique students interest or curiosity in the subject at hand
  • Breaking a complex task into easier, more “doable” steps to facilitate students achievement
  • Modeling the thought process of students through a think aloud
  • Offering hints or partial solutions to problems
  • Asking questions while reading to encourage deeper investigation of concepts
  • Modeling an activity for the students before they’re asked to complete the same or similar one
Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital

© D. A. Wagner 2012,

As I looked at in last year’s post on Common Core-aligned packaged programs, scaffolding these days has been ratcheted up even more, with teachers more or less being asked to do almost anything (including doing a think-aloud that virtually hands over the desired answer) to, in the words of one program, “guide students to recognize” and “be sure students understand” something specific in the text. And, for me, that raises the question: What is all that scaffolding really helping to erect or construct? Is it a strong, flexible and confident reader who’s able to independently understand all sorts of texts? Or is it a particular understanding of a particular text as demonstrated by some kind of written performance-based task product?

If we think about what’s left standing when the scaffolding is removed, it seems like we’re erecting the latter, not the former—though in What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I attempted to change that by making a distinction between what we saw as a prompt and a scaffold, which can be seen in this chart from the book:

Prompt vs. Scaffold 2

Most of the scaffolding moves listed above don’t, however, follow this distinction. Many solve the problems for the students and are also intended to lead students to the same conclusion—Sisyphusa.k.a. answer—as the teacher or the program has determined is right. I’m all for reclaiming or rehabilitating words, but given that the Common Core’s Six Shifts in Literacy clearly states that teachers should “provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding” (italics mine) so that students reading below grade level can close read complex texts, redefining the word scaffold may be a bit like Sisyphus trying to push that boulder uphill. So I’ve been thinking (and here’s where the math folks come in) about recasting the kinds of scaffolds Dorothy and I shared in our book as what my math colleagues call models.

Models in math are used not only as a way of solving a problem but of understanding the concepts beneath the math (which Grant Wiggins has just explored in a great “Granted, and. . . ” blog post). Here, for instance, are two models for multiplication: The first is a number line which shows how multiplication can be thought of as particular quantity of another quantity (in this case, three groups of five each), and the second the Box Method, or an open array,  shows how large numbers can broken down into more familiar and manageable components and their products then added up. Each model is being used here to solve a particular problem, but each can be immediately transferred and applied to similar problems:

Number Line Model

Open Array

And here’s a text-based Know/Wonder chart that records the thinking of a class of 5th graders as they read the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful The Tiger Rising (and—sneak peak—will be appearing in my next book):


© Vicki Vinton 2013, adapted from What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse (Heinemann, 2012)

Like the math models, it references the specifics of a particular text, but it’s also a model for solving certain kinds of problems—in this case, how readers figure out what’s going on at the beginning of a complex texts and develop questions they can use as lines of inquiry as they keep reading. In effect, the chart makes visible what those students were “able to do in collaboration” that day that they’ll “be able to do independently tomorrow,” because, whether we call it a scaffold or a model, it’s directly and immediately transferrable to other texts that pose the same problem.

In the end I don’t think it really matters what we call this kind of support, but I do think we have to ask ourselves what, exactly, we’re scaffolding or modeling. Are we helping students get a particular answer to a particular problem or text in order to produce a particular assignment? Or are we, instead, really offering a replicable process of thinking that’s tied to the concepts of a discipline, which can start being transferred tomorrow not an at indeterminate point in the future? Of course, that raises the question of what the underlying concepts in reading are, which we don’t talk about as much as my math colleagues do for math. But that I’ll need to save for another day . . . .

Rome Piazza Navona Fountain of the Four Rivers 2


From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons


Last week I read a piece in The New Yorker titled “Slow Ideas” by the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, whose articles about medicine seem full of implications about teaching and learning to me. In this piece, for instance, Gawande looks at how to speed the spread of important innovations, such as institutionalizing hygienic hospital practices in order to avoid infections, and along the way he discovers something that I think has implications for mini-lessons: that people are most prone to lastingly learn things not if they’ve seen it demonstrated by an expert but if they’ve had the chance to try to do it themselves.

Rockin' Reading WorkshopThe by-now standard structure of a mini-lesson has the teacher explicitly naming a teaching point that’s connected to the unit of study, then modeling it as students watch. This is followed by a few minutes of active engagement, where students are invited to participate, sometimes by trying out the teaching point themselves or sharing what they saw the teacher doing. Then there’s a link that acts as a segue to independent reading, where students are explicitly or implicitly expected to apply what’s been taught in their independent reading book.

I can’t say enough about how important it was to me, in my own practice, to become adept at articulating a clear, concise teaching point, which this mini-lesson structure forced me to do. I learned an incredible amount doing that—sometimes, I believe, more than the students watching those lessons did. For while there are certainly stellar exceptions, I often see students zoning out as teachers—including me—demonstrate, and too often I don’t really see students transferring what’s been taught into independent reading.

As I explored in an earlier post on the pros and cons of modeling, this may be because of the passive nature of watching someone else do something—especially if it’s not something you’re burning to know. It might also be that the time allotted to active engagement simply isn’t enough for many students to get the teaching point—let alone to see what it can do for them as readers, which might motivate more students to transfer the thinking. Furthermore I think that all of this is compounded by the practice of teaching a new mini-lesson every day, regardless of whether students got what was previously taught or not, which may unintentionally send out the message that we don’t really expect you to understand.

Confucius Quote 2The ideas I explored last week from Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry’s “Planning for What You Can’t Know,” specifically address this last issue by encouraging teachers to be flexible and responsive to student needs. But what about the mini-lesson itself? For a while now I’ve done my most critical teaching not during independent reading but during read aloud (or a hybrid of read aloud and shared reading, where I project or provide students with a copy of the text). And while I often begin that with a teaching point, I’m more likely to set students up to practice it, rather than demonstrate it myself—knowing that, as Gawande (and Confucius) said, the learning will be more meaningful and lasting that way.

IThe Name Jarn the example I shared in that post about modeling, I set the students up to read The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi by asking them to try to do what readers usually do in their heads whenever they begin a book: They try to keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about both because beginnings can be confusing and because they know that some of what they’re curious about will be answered as the story unfolds. And to help them make that work visible, I used a text-based Know/Wonder chart to keep track of their thinking.

Unlike the teaching points found in many mini-lessons, this wasn’t exactly a strategy or skill, though it positioned the students to employ many strategies and skills we might otherwise teach separately as they automatically—and authentically—started questioning, monitoring their own comprehension, and connecting details within the text to infer everything from the character’s nationality to the problems she faced. And moving the main teaching point from independent reading to the read aloud gives students more time and space to wrestle with meaning by engaging in what Gawande calls in another great article “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.” It also gives us a window into different students’ minds, which can help us and students in several ways.

By studying The Name Jar, for instance, I was aware that there were several problems readers had to tackle in the first few pages, including navigating a flashback, which, as you can see below, is signaled only by small textual clues that include a subtle shift in verb tense.

TheNameJar 1

TheNameJar 2

TheNameJar 3

I anticipated that that might be tricky for some students, which it proved to be, as students had different views on where and when things were happening. But rather than solving the problem for them by either confirming the ‘right’ answer or explaining the time shift myself, I asked a student to explain her thinking, which accomplished several things. The student who walked the class through her thinking benefited in ways that are described in a recent Education Week article called “Students Can Learn By Explaining,” which cites new research that shows that “students who can verbally explain why they arrived at a particular answer [are] more able to catch their own incorrect assumptions and generalize what they learn to other subjects”—or, in this case, other texts. The number of ‘ah’s’ heard in the room also meant that other students were listening and now saw what she had seen (though anticipating that here might be problems here, I already had a small group lesson up my sleeve that would give the students I could now identify more time to practice this kind of thinking).

Additionally as I noticed and named what that student had done in more general terms, we’d arrived, as a class, at another teaching point: that writers sometimes signal a shift from the present to the past through small words and clues like “had said” and “remembered,” and so readers try to attend to those clues in order to not get lost. This teaching point and the other about keeping track of what we’re learning and wondering about could now be imported to independent reading where, instead of modeling, we could remind students of what they’d already done, how they’d done it, and how it had helped them as readers. Building the mini-lesson around student thinking this way not only builds on strengths instead of deficits, it also ensures that time-wise the lesson stays mini so that students have more time to read, without being shortchanged on the time really needed to experience the thinking work first hand.

And if and when I do see the need to model, the students are more apt to see the need for it, too, because they’ve developed a different sense of themselves as thinkers and readers—having played the notes of the symphony themselves.

Student Orchestra

To Model or Not To Model: That Is the Question

Art Emulation

In addition to the numerous treats I shared from this year’s NCTE convention, I also had the privilege of hearing Ellin Keene talk about talk—specifically about what kind of teacher talk enhances or impedes student understanding. Drawing on some of the work from her most recent book Talk About Understanding, she shared some trends and patterns she’d noticed during a year she spent viewing and analyzing teachers’ talk in classrooms. Among the things she noticed and named that all too often we do were the following:

    • Cut students off before they have a chance to fully develop their thinking
    • Accept students’ first thoughts without probing for deeper thinking
    • Move on before we label students’ descriptions of thinking (i.e., naming for them what they’re doing) so that the thinking can be transferred
    • Segue from modeling to student responsibility too quickly

The first three points I see all the time—and have been guilty of doing myself. And seeing them named so clearly reminds me of both the power of naming and the importance of giving students enough time to develop and test out their thinking. But the last point made me pause, because increasingly in my own practice, I’ve found myself moving away from explicit modeling in reading.

Mini LessonAs Dorothy Barnhouse and I both noticed and discussed in What Readers Really Do, when we model how readers use strategies through a think aloud, what students too often take away is what we thought, not how. And they can be left (as I sometimes am in the wake of a great think aloud) feeling dazzled but daunted. Additionally, a mini-lesson based on a “Today I’m going to teach you” teaching point, followed by a “Now watch me do it” demonstration and a “Now you do what I do” link puts students in a passive role and re-enforces a vision of student as empty vessels in need of teacher filling.

In his great book on teacher talk Choice Words, Peter Johnston shows how this positioning can have even more consequences, which he describes as the “hidden costs in telling people things”:

“If a student can figure something out for him- or herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence . . . When you figure something out for yourself, there is a certain thrill in the figuring. After a few successful experiences, you might start to think that figuring things out is something that you can actually do. Maybe you are even a figuring out kind of person . . . When you are told what to do, particularly without asking, it feels different. Being told explicitly what to do and how to do it—over and over again—provides the foundation for a different set of feelings and a different story about what you can and can’t do, and who you are.”

Peter Johnston2For Johnston, the key to learning isn’t explicit teacher modeling but student engagement. And from 2008 to 2010 he was involved in a research study that yielded compelling proof of that. As he shared in a recent blog post titled “Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement,” he and his colleague Gay Ivey looked at four 8th grade classrooms where the teachers decided to put engagement front and center by cutting back on explicit instruction and modeling and offering instead edgy young adult fiction with adolescent-relevant themes that the students could read without strings attached—i.e., no book reports or quizzes. The results? In addition to reading an average of 42 books a year and becoming more open, responsible and empathic, the students increased their standardized test scores, in some cases by more than 10%. (A paper on the study can be found here.)

In our current age of anxiety, however, where accountability and data collection rule, it’s hard to image this study being replicated in any systemic way. But what if instead of modeling, we moved students more quickly into problem-solving mode by orchestrating experiences for them that positioned them to feel the thrill of figuring things out?

This was what I did the other day in a fourth grade bilingual room that was embarking on a thematic unit of study about overcoming adversity. These were students who could easily be seen as deficient—who ‘couldn’t’ infer, ‘couldn’t’ summarize, ‘couldn’t’ find the main idea. But as we began to read Yangsook Choi‘s The Name Jarwithout a shred of modeling and no more support than a chance to turn and talk and a T-chart to record what they were learning and what they wondered about, their thinking was amazing.

The Name JarFrom the cover, they wondered what a name jar was, why the book was called that, who put the names in the jar and why, and was the girl putting something in or taking something out? With these questions in mind and their curiosity sparked, I started reading, pausing periodically to let them turn and talk and share out what they were thinking out.

What they noticed was that on almost every page, something about names came up: the girl’s grandmother gives her a wooden name stamp when she leaves Korea; children on the bus make fun of her name; she lies about her name to her classmates; the Korean grocer says her name is beautiful; and she tries out various American names as she brushes her teeth. They also had two more burning questions: Will she decide to change her name? and Will she manage to make friends?

As they wrestled with these questions half-way through the book, they demonstrated a deep understanding of the girl’s predicament in a way that also showed their ability to refer to details when explaining what the text said explicitly and when drawing inferences from it (Reading Literature Standard 4.1) and to draw on specific details from a text to describe in depth a character or event (RL. 4.3). They were also well on their way to determine a theme of a story from details in the text (RL.4.2)—and none of that had been explicitly taught or modeled (though I did ask them to share what made them think what they did and ended by naming the work they’d done).

It’s possible, of course, that what allowed them to do this was the explicit modeling their teacher had done. But what if, as Johnston and Ivey conclude of the students in their study, “Being fully engaged and facing problems, they became strategic”? What if they automatically generated strategies because they were invested in what they were reading, not because someone told them that’s what good readers do? And what if in delaying the release of responsibility, we risk becoming helicopter teachers, hovering over our students heads to make sure they get it right in a way that deprives them of the opportunity to learn by their mistakes?

For the record, I do keep explicit teaching and modeling in my toolkit of teaching moves. But it’s not automatically the tool I first pull out, because sometimes less is more.