Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

As a featured speaker at this year’s upcoming Literacy for All Conference in Providence, I was invited to write a guest post for the Lesley University Literacy blog. Some of you may have caught this there, but if not, here’s a repost:

Recently I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.” A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writer, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

“Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

• To become a more empathetic human being
• To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
• To help us understand how we fit into our world
• To feel more understood and accepted
• To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

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When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, could and maybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferring meant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings
+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings
+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)
Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

“The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.”

When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.

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The Skillification of Reading

According to NCTE’s 2014 Position Statement on Reading,

Reading is a complex act of constructing meaning from print. We read in order to better understand ourselves, and the world around us; we use the knowledge we gain from reading to change the world in which we live.

I love this definition for its conciseness and the way it echoes what writers like Ursula Le Guin has to say about the real purpose of reading. But I confess I have a quibble with what NCTE says teachers need to offer students in order to construct that meaning:

1. access to a wide range of texts that mirror the range of students’ abilities and interests;
2. ample time to read a wide range of materials, from the very simple to the very challenging;
3. teachers who help them develop an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies;
4. opportunities to learn how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support each other;
5. and access to the literacy skills needed in a technologically advanced society.

I’m all in with numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5, but number 3 gives me pause. This isn’t because I don’t think readers need skills. I recognize that reading involves a range of skills from decoding and using context clues to evaluating an author’s argument. But too often those skills are taught in ways that can actually undermine, rather than enhance, a reader’s ability to construct meaning.

Consider,for instance, this chart of reading skills (without getting side-tracked in the question of whether they’re actually skills or strategies). Then add to that list these other skills: Scanning, Skimming, Annotating, Note-Taking, Paraphrasing, Drawing Conclusions and Identifying Character Traits, Story Elements, Literary Devices, Point of View, Text Structures, Text Features, Key Details, and Themes.

These skills (along with individual standards) often wind up as the content of the lessons we teach. And whether we teach these in isolation, using worksheets and graphic organizers, or have students practice them in authentic texts, there’s much that’s problematic about skilled-based instruction.

First there’s the problem that Tim Shanahan shares on his blog: “Researchers have shown that, indeed, when you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.” This means that while students may be able to, say, distinguish between fact and opinion or recognize the sequence of a text, their ability to construct meaning may be hampered.

To make this more concrete, let’s imagine we’ve brought a small group of kids together to practice the skill of identifying character traits, using the opening paragraph of Peter Lerangis’s The Sword Thief, the third book in The 39 Clues series:

Asking the group to consider what kind of character Amy is, students might infer from her exchange with her brother that she’s bossy, a know-it-all or stuck-up—and based on these details, they wouldn’t be wrong. But in order to construct meaning of this passage, a reader would need to figure out when and where they are (at the airport in Venice) and what’s happening (they’re worried that a samurai sword they’ve packed in the duffle bag might be found and confiscated in a random luggage search). And all of that could conceivably be missed if they’re only looking for details that suggest a character trait.

And then there’s this problem with skill-based instruction that NCTE notes in another Position Statement: 

[U]tilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways . . . [and that] prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction mislocates the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.

I think it’s important to remember this whenever we’re tempted to wring our hands over students who still can’t identify a main idea, despite being taught how to do so for years. This doesn’t mean, however, we should never teach skills. But we need to be mindful of what students may lose when we do—and consider if there are other ways to help them become skillful readers. In my last post, for instance, I suggested that rather than teaching analysis as a discrete skill, we see it as a by-product of the complex act of constructing meaning by interpreting. And many other skills that we teach in isolation can be by-products not only of interpretation, but also of reading for pleasure. According to the educational researcher Stephen Krashen, for instance,

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.

Similarly, at CCIRA’s yearly conference in Denver, I had the privilege of hearing Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, speak about a study he and Gay Ivey had conducted, which showed that when teachers shifted their instruction from teaching skills to socially and emotionally engaging students with high-interest texts, the following can happen:

And as the students developed social imaginations, additional outcomes were found:

So here’s my question: If all of these outcomes are natural outgrowths of students reading to construct meaning, why do we spend so much time and energy on teaching individual skills? Of course, I’m aware that some teachers have no choice, because they’re required to teach packaged programs ‘with fidelity’. Many also are driven to teach skills in isolation because of the role high-stakes test scores play in how they’re evaluated. But I have to wonder if it’s also because it gives us something concrete to teach.

This is something I think many teachers feel, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Even Nancie Atwell, one of the most respected reading teachers on the planet, succumbed to the allure of having something to teach when she first heard about comprehension strategies in the 1990’s. As she writes in The Reading Zone:

Despite everything I recognized and celebrated about the impact of frequent, voluminous, enjoyable experiences with books on my students’ abilities as readers, I still harbored a pocket of doubt about the rigor of reading workshop, especially about my role in it. . . I hadn’t yet defined, to my own satisfaction, exactly what I was supposed to do as the teacher in a reading workshop. So the comprehension strategies held immediate appeal: I could give myself a role by teaching these.”

Eventually, though, Atwell recognized that imposing any agenda on her students’ reading, beyond the construction of meaning, interfered with their ability to become the “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” she wanted them to be. So she went back to doing what she’d been doing: giving kids abundant time to read and talk about what they were reading, trusting that reading would teach them how to read, without her needing to skillifying the process. And perhaps, we should do that as well.