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.

Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

Embed from Getty Images

The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.

test-prep-strategies-©

We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

A Cornucopia of Ideas & Wise Words from NCTE

Cornucopia

Once again I couldn’t quite get this out before the turkey was done. But as I did last year, this Thanksgiving weekend I’d like to share some inspiring words and ideas from NCTE as a way of giving thanks to all the educators out there whom I consider to be part of my professional leaning community, especially all you blog readers who, week after week, renew my faith in teachers. The theme of this year’s convention was (Re)Inventing the Future of English, and as happened last year, I detected what seemed to me to be a pattern in the sessions I attended: that the future we’re in the process of reinventing is one of “wholeness and possibility,” not data points and accountability, where the act of teaching children entails “being passionate together.”

Opal School InvitationThe words quoted above were spoken by Susan Mackey of the Opal School in Portland, Oregon, in a session on “Playful Literacy” that I participated in, along with three of Susan’s colleague from Opal, Mary Gage Davis, Levia Friedman and Kerry Salazar. The session was filled with stories (more of which can be found on their blog) about children and teachers who were given the time, the space and, most critically, the trust to follow their curiosity, seek connections and wonder, imagine and dream, knowing that whatever came out of that time would ultimately be more lasting and meaningful than anything that was rushed.

This included the story of a fifth grade boy whose class had just returned from a trip to a rock and ropes challenge course. Back at school his teacher Levia had set out some materials, including some slabs of clay, which she invited the students to use to explore their feelings about their adventure before they turned to writing. And this particular boy discovered that if he put his finger in the slab of clay and then pulled it out quickly, it would make a popping noise, which, delightfully to some classmates, sounded just like fart. He also discovered that the sound became louder if he added some slip to the clay, and soon a whole corner of the room was consumed with creating a chorus of farts.

Focus Daniel GolemanMost of us—including me—would be tempted to see this as a case of a disruptive student leading others to be off task, which, in turn, could lead Levia to losing control of the room. But the gift that Opal teachers give their students—and those of us willing, as Susan said, to trust the process and embrace uncertainty—is the belief that that play was actually important. Not only does it support students becoming authors of their own learning, it puts them into what Daniel Goleman calls in his great book Focus a state of open awareness, which as he describes below, is critical for developing new ideas:

“The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay—life’s ‘full catastrophe’—throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where serendipitous discoveries thrive. In the tumult of our daily distractions and to-do lists, innovation dead-ends; in open time it flourish . . . Open time lets the creative spirit flourish; tight schedules kill it.”

In this case, rather than stopping the silliness and having students get down to work, Levia let it run its course. And her faith that that time was important was affirmed when, after his slab of clay fell apart from too much water and fart pops, the same student created this:

Opal School Clay Sculpture2Once—and only once that was done—was he ready to pick up a pencil and his writer’s notebook and write this amazing entry: “It’s like a hollow feeling when you fall down. You fall into this pit and you start to swing. You’re in a hole, it’s slippery inside and you have no idea what’s going on. My body shut itself down and I close my eyes and I thought it was dreaming. I was super happy after I did it. You have to face you fears.”

I believe that something was getting processed in this student’s mind as he played. Feelings and ideas were coalescing into powerful images and words, just as his fear transformed into triumph after that incredible fall. And none of that would have happened, I suspect, if he’d been given an onslaught of worksheets and graphic organizers and told to write down, say, some sensory details in boxes labeled ‘sounds’ ‘tastes’ and ‘feel’. Instead Levia gave him the time, space and trust to “encounter the unexpected,” which is a phrase Tom Romano, author of the new book Fearless Writing, shared in a packed-to-the-gills session I attended called “Keeping Poetry Central to Our Core.”

Fearless WritingChaired by the ever-gracious Maureen Barbieri, the session also included Georgia Heard and Linda Rief who, along with Tom, reminded the audience again and again that reading and writing aren’t just skills we need to master to secure a place in college or a job but the means by which we can, in Tom’s words, bring “ourselves into realization.”

Tom also shared his attempt to rewrite the Common Core’s Production and Distribution of Writing standards in a more meaningful and gutsy way. Rather than requiring students to “produce clear, coherent writing; develop and strengthen writing; and use technology to produce and publish writing,” he urged us instead to first invite students to:

“Write expansively, trusting the language in them, letting it gush, leading them to surprise and insights that enables them to craft writing of substance, vision and voice.”

Georgia Heard pushed back as well on the reading standards, suggesting that before we ask students to analyze the craft, structure and meaning of a poem as the Common Core requires, we need to invite them to connect to poetry “by guiding them toward finding themselves and their lives inside the poem.” She showed what this could look like with a group of young readers who, in a month’s time, came to truly understand what Robert Frost meant when he said that “poetry provides the one permissible way to say one thing and mean another.” And she shared this quote by the theologian and writer Matthew Fox, which I’m, in turn, sharing with every teacher I work with:

“Knowledge that is not passed through the heart

is dangerous.”

Finally, teacher and author Linda Rief shared how she set up her class of eighth graders to do precisely what Georgia recommended: to find themselves inside a poem. She brought out every anthology and collection of poems that she had in her classroom and invited her students Awakening the Heart 2to browse through and read some in order to find poems “that speak to your heart.” Once they found one, Linda asked them to write out the poem in the their own hand, forming each word themselves, then illustrate the poem, write a response about why you chose it, and research the poet to find out what he might have to say about reading and writing.

This led students to read more poems than they ever had before and to spend more time with those that spoke to them. One girl, for instance, loved the poem “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye, though she couldn’t quite say why. Something about the images and language struck a chord in her, and in order to understand that better, she went back to the poem again and again, reading it carefully and closely and, as she put it in her response “sleeping on her confusion,” until she discovered something about both herself and the poem.

Inspired by Georgia’s idea of heart maps, Linda’s students eventually created heart books: collections of hand-written, illustrated poems that spoke to their hearts, accompanied by their responses to the poems and the poets thoughts on reading and writing. These books were similar to ones I saw in another session, though that will have to wait for another post, as this one has gotten long. But I hope these words and ideas have awakened something in your own heart, as they did for me, and that perhaps in the words of the Opal School, you’ve begun to “imagine possibilities that you couldn’t have imagined before.”

Imagine Mosaic

Rethinking Readiness

Are You Ready

The results of this year’s New York State assessments—the first to supposedly be aligned to the Common Core—were released the other week, and as expected scores plummeted. Only 26% of New York City students passed the English exam, which means that, in the parlance of the day, 74% of city students are off-track for being college and career ready. The results have rekindled the blame game that’s replaced real discussion about public education, and they’ve reopened all sorts of questions about the tests themselves. And for me, they’ve also raised questions about what it means to be ready and how to help students get there.

As most of us know, the Common Core Standards were designed by identifying the academic skills students would need to be ready for college and careers and then working back from there. We could see it, in a sense, as a large-scale example of backwards planning where, having determined the desired outcome, the Standards writers created a scope and sequence of skills for getting there. But as many early childhood experts have pointed out—such as those who signed a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the Standards when they were first unveiled—this backward planning process neglected to take into account a slew of cognitive, developmental and neuroscience research about how children learn.

College and Career Ready CartoonWith those concerns unheeded, a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit project Defending the Early Years shows that a whopping 85% of the public school pre-K to third grade teachers who responded believes that they’re being required to engage students in developmentally inappropriate activities. What seems ironic, if not tragic, to me is that while learning through the developmentally appropriate methods of exploration and play may not help children identify the setting of a story (as RL.K.3 requires), it actually lays the foundation for them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Or put another way, exploration and play may be a more effective path for becoming college and career ready than teaching young children to become pint-size literary critics through skills-based direct instruction.

From One Experience to AnotherIt probably comes as no surprise that I think older students learn best as well when they’re given opportunities to explore and solve problems. But several other issues impact readiness in reading, which I found myself thinking about during a shared reading demo I did with a class of seventh graders as part of an institute Dorothy Barnhouse and I facilitated in June. I’d chosen a short text, “Dozens of Roses: A Story for Voices” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, from the short story anthology From One Experience to AnotherAs you can see from the opening below, the text puts few demands on students at the vocabulary or syntax level—i.e., there aren’t many word or syntax problems a reader would need to solve. But beyond the play-like format, figuring out what’s going on and why requires a ton of complex thinking as the author never directly comes out and tells us what has happened.

Dozens of Roses

Some of you reading this might already have a hunch about where the story’s going—there’s abuse involved—but despite lots of great talk and great participation, none of the students could ‘see’ that. As I met with the teachers who’d been observing to think about the instructional implications of what we’d seen, we wondered whether part of the problem was that the possibility of abuse was something they couldn’t imagine. That is, it was a conclusion they weren’t yet ready to reach.

CrossroadAnd here we hit a crossroads: On the one hand, if we believe that one of the great gifts reading offers is the way it extends our understanding of human nature—and that seventh grade is an appropriate place for students to be aware of abuse—we head in one direction. On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for those seventh graders who couldn’t imagine anyone inflicting harm on someone they supposedly love? Might not that be something to celebrate—just as we might celebrate the kind of imaginative or magical thinking young children are capable of, knowing that they’ll grow out of it quickly without us pushing them?

FishFaceIllustration

Illustration by Blanche Sims, from Fish Face by Patricia Reilly Giff

Aware that there were a handful of students who’d been circling the idea without quite getting there, we decided in this case to pursue the first course and design a small group lesson that might push their thinking. But rather than battering them with more prompts and loaded questions to pull the answer out, I took a path that might feel counter-intuitive to those who think that the way to prepare students to read complex texts is to have them read more complex texts: I gave them all copies of an easier text that posed the same kind of problem, an excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which I often use. And I asked them to consider this question: How can we figure out something that’s happened that the writer doesn’t tell us directly?

Without too much trouble the students figured out what the author hadn’t explicitly said—that Emily lied about her middle name in order to impress Dawn, whom she envied. And as they explained how they arrived at that conclusion, I turned their thinking into an equation, showing them how they’d added up various details from the text to come up with what hadn’t been said:

Emily admires/is envious of Dawn’s things

+ Emily wants to be Dawn’s friend

+ Emily also admires Dawn’s middle name

+ Emily doesn’t have a middle name but says it’s Tiffany to Dawn

= Emily lied to impress Dawn

And with that experience under their belts, they took a second look at “Dozens of Roses” and ‘saw’ what they hadn’t before—which led one student to exclaim, “Oh, that’s really creepy!”

This stepping-backwards-to-step-forward approach—with its emphasis on complex thinking, rather than on Lexile levels—seems, to me, like a better path to help students become ready. But here’s one last thought about readiness: Whenever I facilitate a reading experience with teachers, where we read and talk about a complex text together, I’m reminded of how often we don’t feel ready to make a claim about the author’s message—at least not right away. Instead we want to talk more and ponder in a way that seems akin to how the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon defined the work of critical thinking:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

This description of critical thinking seems almost diametrically opposed to how students are supposed to demonstrate readiness for college and careers, especially as gauged by standardized tests where speed and right answers rule. But I have to wonder whether we’d do better by giving students more time to doubt, consider, seek and meditate rather than rushing straight through to making claims. Granted, it would be a slower path, though it might be one that’s more durable. And while it would be harder to measure on a standardized test, maybe those tests aren’t really ready to assess readiness.

I'm just not yet ready

Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

Hansel and Gretel

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Kay Nielson

A while ago as I was visiting a lower school, a bulletin board caught my eye. A second grade teacher had decided to tackle theme in a unit of study on fairy tales, and the bulletin board displayed her students’ reader responses to the theme of Hansel and Gretel. Intrigued, I stopped to take a look and quickly noticed that in paper after paper the students wrote that the theme of Hansel and Gretel was good versus evil. Hmm, I thought. How did the students arrive at that idea? Surely not on their own. And what did that mean the students took away about what a theme was, how a reader constructs it, and why thinking about theme matters in the first place?

Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, we, as teachers, can get lost in a tangle of terms when it comes to theme. Lesson, moral, author’s message or purpose, big idea, main idea, theme: Frequently when we talk about theme, uncertainty arises, with different teachers having different ideas about what it is and how it’s connected—or not—to those other terms. And amid that uncertainly we almost never think of what a reader actually gains—beyond, perhaps, an academic skill—by thinking about theme.

Pin the Tail on the DonkeyAs this teacher had, we often think of theme as a one-word (or as above, a three-word) abstraction, such as love, friendship, bravery, kindness. The problem is that even a story as simple as Hansel and Gretel isn’t about just one thing. It’s also about jealousy, loyalty, greed, resourcefulness, abandonment, courage, and while we could think about which of these the story is mostly about, as standardized tests tend to do, I don’t really see what a reader gains by reducing a complex story to a single abstraction. It also invites what we could call ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ thinking, especially in classrooms where students are given a list of these abstract words that they’re then asked to ‘pin’ on or match to a text.

Students also tend to think of themes as sayings or aphorisms, such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Honesty is the best policy,” perhaps because that’s how morals are stated in most versions of Aesop’s Fables, where the concept of theme may be first introduced. Unfortunately, this seems reductive as well, and again it seems more about pinning something on a text than thinking about the text deeply. Much better, I think, is writer Janet Burroway‘s concept of theme, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. Here’s what she says in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

“We might better understand theme if we ask the question: What about what it’s about? What does the story have to say about the idea or abstraction that seems to be contained in it? What attitudes or judgments does it imply? Above all, how do the elements of fiction contribute to our experience of those ideas and attitudes in the story? 

Applying Burroway’s notion to the second graders reading fairy tales would mean inviting them to consider what the story of Hansel and Gretel specifically has to say about good versus evil. And to do this, we’d want to ask students to think about not only who was good and evil, but why they were and how they were and how one engaged with the other, which would almost inevitably wind up circling some of the other ideas in the story, like cleverness and greed.

The Paper Bag PrincessFor students who are all too ready to pin a saying on a story, we can push them in a similar way, as I did recently with a fourth grade ICT class that, much to their teachers’ dismay, had summed up Robert Munsch‘s fractured fairy tale The Paper Bag Princess with the maxim, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The teachers had purposely chosen a book that was easy enough for all their students to access in order to focus on the harder work of thinking about theme. It’s another example of the ‘Simple Text, Complex Task‘ approach I offered in last week’s post. But when left to their own devices and ideas about theme, the students’ thinking remained simple as well, missing the whole feminist angle.

To help the students dig deeper in the text and give them a different vision of how readers engage and think about theme, I gathered the children in the meeting area where I put a piece of paper under the document camera and wrote down “Never judge a book by its cover.” I then explained that while you could, indeed, say that this was a theme of The Paper Bag Princess, there were lots and lots of stories this was true for. So our job as readers was to think more deeply about what in particular this book might be saying about judging books by their cover. And we’d do that by going back to the story to think about who was judging what, why they were, how they were, and why they shouldn’t have in a way that would get us closer to the author’s attitude and judgments.

PaperBagPrincessThemes

As you can see above, I drew boxes around the words judge, book and cover, and I asked the students to turn and talk about what specific form those three words took in The Paper Bag Princess. And as you’ll see by following the arrows that led down from each of the words, the thinking became much more interesting. It ultimately allowed the class to develop three new thematic statements (which you’ll find numbered on the upper right) that captured the feminist twist of the story. And while these students might need additional support in developing these statements in more sophisticated ways, they had taken a big step here. They were also energized by the thinking they had done and eager to continue discussing the gender issues they now saw in the story, which is the authentic reading reason to think about theme: because it can extend, affirm, challenge or deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

When it comes to teaching theme then, rather than asking students to match a text to an abstract noun or saying that too often doesn’t capture the richness or nuance of an author’s take, we might better ask students to linger longer in the details and the elements of the story, not to simply identify them, but to develop ideas and interpretations about how and why they interact and change and develop over time. From there, it’s a relatively easy move to zoom out from the specifics of the story to a generalization about human behavior, as the fourth graders did. But it means that we have to have a deeper and more nuanced understand of theme, one that acknowledges how it’s embedded in and arrived at through the details of the text. And we need to share that with our students, as well, so that they’re not lost in the woods.

Hansel and Gretel 2

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Natascha Rosenberg, http://www.natascharosenberg.com

Skills versus Meaning: The Problem with Packaged Reading Programs

I began to work in schools in the late 1980’s, right around the time that the tides were turning away from packaged reading programs—otherwise known as basals—to what Ralph Peterson and Mary Ann Eeds, authors of the seminal book Grand Conversations, called “real books”—books “written by authors who know how to unlock the world with words and to open our eyes and our hearts.”

Those were the years in which teachers and schools heeded the words of the great children’s book author Katherine Paterson who said:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”

To that end schools invested in classroom libraries where students could choose independent reading books. And teachers helped students form literature circles to discuss what they read in accordance with Peterson and Eeds’s four core beliefs:

    • Story is an exploration and illumination of life
    • Interpretation is the result of a transactional process in which readers bring meaning to as well as take meaning from a text
    • Children are born makers of meaning
    • Dialogue is the best method for teaching and learning about literature

It was a heady, invigorating time—and a challenging one, too, as many of us learned that it wasn’t always enough to just put a book in a child’s hand or let them talk with their peers. Some students couldn’t comprehend what they read; some didn’t know how to listen and talk in a way that could build and deepen understanding. And so many of us started teaching strategies and skills that would help students reap the rewards that Katherine Paterson so eloquently spelled out.

I’ve dedicated my work life to supporting teachers do this valuable work, but this year I’m seeing a disturbing trend back toward packaged reading programs, a.k.a. 21st century-style basals. I think this has happened for a number of reasons: the climate of testing, the obsession with data, the belief among some who wield power that corporate publishing conglomerates know more about teaching than teachers do. Plus there’s the fact that real, authentic reading—that transactional exchange that stretches imaginations and illuminates life—is hard to assess and quantify. But with so many schools going back to packaged programs, I decided that I needed to look at them more closely, both to see what I was up against and make sure I wasn’t misjudging them.

And so one day during a break I opened up the fourth grade version of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s program Journeys to see what I could see. Having been raised on Dick and Jane, the first thing I noticed was that the Table of Contents was filled with the name of real authors whose books were worth reading precisely for the reasons Katherine Paterson’s enumerated. There was Kate DiCamillo and Julia Alvarez, Laurence Yep and Pam Munoz Ryan. The illustrations were charming and I had to concede that the vocabulary component might be useful. But I ran into trouble when I looked more closely at one of the weekly lessons.

The text for that week was “The Screech Owl Who Liked Television,” which combined two chapters from Jean Craighead George‘s autobiographical collection of stories about animals, The Tarantula in My PurseThese two chapters recounted the George family’s experience with an injured gray screech owl they brought into their homes, and among the many things the story explores and illuminates is how little we can ever truly know the animals we share our lives with and how letting go is as much a part of love as trying to spare and shield those we love from the pain that letting go brings.

If we say that meaning is the ultimate goal, you would think that the week’s comprehension lesson would focus on a strategy or skill that helped students access and consider the text’s deeper meaning. But the comprehension lesson was on fact vs. opinion, with students asked to search the text for examples, as if reading were a scavenger hunt. I do think it might be possible to use an understanding of fact and opinion to get to those deeper levels, but the program didn’t ask students asked to do that. Instead they were asked to explain how the facts and opinions they collected could or couldn’t be verified as a means of proving what each sample was.

To be fair, there were some comprehension questions that seemed to circle the deeper meaning. But the students weren’t given any strategies to answer those beyond the literal level, which was all that seemed to be expected of them from the sample answers in the Teacher’s Guide. Mostly they were asked to recall information, not to stretch their imaginations and consider what their eyes and hearts were open to. In this way, the text seemed little more than the vehicle to practice a skill with, rather than one to read closely and examine in order to “gain the maximum insight,” as the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria requires instructional material to do.

So . . . my final verdict? The texts in Journeys were dramatically better than the Dick and Jane books I grew up on, which makes these anthologies a potentially great resource for short, well-written texts. But what they asked students to do with these texts was often boring and lifeless, with insight seemingly relegated to the sidelines and skills disconnected from meaning. And that left me with one final question: Was it a fact or an opinion that all packaged reading programs were aligned to the Common Core Standards—despite whatever they claimed?  Verification seemed in order.

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