Helping Students Consider the Significance of Details with Wordless Books

As we saw last week when I shared the responses to Allen Woodman’s story “Wallet,” experienced readers invest much thought in considering the possible significance of a narrative’s details. To do this, they use many of the strategies we commonly teach in classrooms—they visualize, infer and question up a storm. But they use those strategies because they know something about the way narratives work that I think we teach far less often: that everything readers encounter in a text—from the title to the imagery to the lowliest detail—has been deliberately chosen by the author for a purpose. And a reader’s job is like a detective’s: We carefully attend to the details for clues in order to develop hunches and theories about what we think the author might be trying to showing us and exploring through those detail clues.

I believe it’s important that we share this knowledge with the students we teach and set whatever strategy work we do in the context of this understanding. The question, as always, in classrooms is how. We can, of course, present it as a teaching point in a mini-lesson, modeling how we ask ourselves questions like, “Why is the author showing me this?” and “What could this detail mean?” then demonstrating how we brainstorm possibilities and read on on the look-out for more clues. Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe that while this kind of think-aloud can certainly help some students, many more need to experience it themselves to truly ‘get’ it in a way that allows them to transfer the thinking to other texts.

This belief is supported by the research behind Learning Pyramids such as this one, which show how much students retain what’s taught according to the instructional method. You’ll see that, while 30% of students retain what’s been demonstrated, more than twice that many retain what they’ve been able to practice themselves. Because of this, I try to keep demonstrations short and move students from listening to practicing quickly so that, in this case, they can experience for themselves the purposefulness of an author’s choice of detail. That means that I need to be purposeful as well with my choice of text, finding one that allows students to engage in this work with a minimum of scaffolding and modeling. And that’s where wordless books come in.

Wordless books allow students to engage in the thinking work of meaning making without any of the decoding, vocabulary or syntax challenges of print. And they invite students to scrutinize the details in the pictures in the exact same way we want them to eventually scrutinize the details in print. There are many wonderful wordless picture books for lower school children, including the delightful Boy, Dog, Frog books by Mercer Mayer and virtually anything by David Wiesner. But for middle and even high school students, who often need experience with this thinking as well, my all-time favorite is Shaun Tan‘s amazing wordless book The Arrival

Everything about The Arrival is mysterious, from the antique-looking cover to the two title pages, one of which is in an unidentifiable language with a strange-looking alphabet. And then comes the first page, which looks like this:

Frequently students react with a “Huh?”, which seems like a perfectly reasonable response to such an opening—and is, in fact, a reasonable reaction to the beginnings of many narratives from Level M on up. But when asked to look carefully and share out what they notice, they begin to do what experienced readers do: They attend to the details and wonder what they might mean by connecting detail to detail and inferring. Many notice, for instance, the drawing in the center of the page and the picture in the lower right corner and wonder if they’re the same people. Some connect the suitcase to the one on the cover and wonder if that man is the same man here. And some notice the crack in the teapot and the chip on the cup and think that maybe these people are poor. And if so, maybe the fact that they’re poor has something to do with the suitcase and the title, which now takes on more significance.

As Dorothy Barnhouse and I suggest in What Readers Really Do, these wonderings and fledgling ideas are the students’ first-draft understanding of the text, which will go through many revisions as they encounter more details, connect them together and develop their ideas. And that process begins immediately as we turn the page and come to the next spread (where students have actually been known to gasp):

What had seemed so confusing just a page before suddenly takes on more meaning as the students infer that all of these objects belong to the couple in the earlier picture and that all but that picture, which has been tenderly wrapped and packed in the suitcase, will soon be left behind. From the gestures and expressions, they also infer that this is a sad occasion, though Tan brings back the origami bird a few pages later to suggest a different feeling and show us something about the man’s character and his relationship with the child.

Beyond being an extraordinary story, The Arrival helps students see how authors plant and use details to reveal everything from the characters to themes. And having seen and experienced that first hand here, they’re more primed to attend to details in a printed text than they’d be if they’d just observed a think-aloud. Additionally, having made this visible for students, we’re in a better position, as teachers, to remind them of that thinking work when we confer with them on their own reading. And if they’re beginning to take that work on, a conference offers students the perfect opportunity to teach us what they’re discovering as readers, which helps them retain this key understanding about how texts work even more.

Tying Means to Ends, or Making Sure Our Strategy Instruction is Strategic

Last summer a friend sent me a link to a pair of documents written by two of the authors of the Common Core Standards, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel. Titled “Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literary” for Grades K-2 and Grades 3-12, respectively, they aimed to establish guidelines for designing instructional material aligned to the Common Core. The intended audience was publishers, yet the documents seemed to have major implications for teachers and schools as well, especially those that develop and design curricula and lessons in-house.

Both documents talk at length about the need for instruction to be text-based, not strategy-based, a distinction that sometimes calls into question practices currently found in many classrooms. The Criteria for Grades 3-12, for instance, states that “Reading strategies must take their right place in service of reading comprehension . . . rather than being taught as a separate body of material.”

This section, along with others, has sparked much discussion and debate, especially over whether these documents have veered too far into pedagogy, by telling teachers how they should teach, not just what the outcomes of their teaching should be. But the fact is there’s been controversy brewing over strategy instruction for a while, beginning perhaps with Nancie Atwell‘s 2007 book The Reading Zone, in which she raised some provocative questions about the role of strategies, seeing them too often as distractions or as test prep study skills.

Like Atwell, I’ve noticed how strategies like connecting can pull students out of a text, sending them off on recollections or tangents that sometimes have little to do with what they’re reading beyond the surface level. And I’m mindful of the cautionary story a colleague once shared with me. When she asked her fourth-grade son about homework, he told her he had to write some connections. “Well, you better start reading then,” she said, to which he replied, “No, I don’t have to read. I just have to make connections.”

I think this happens because we do sometimes teach strategies as a separate body of material—or as I tend to put it, we teach them as ends unto themselves, not as the means to an end. We ask students, for instance, to make connections seemingly for the sake of doing so, not explicitly in order to understand something they couldn’t have without using the strategy. And we often choose books for the express purpose of teaching inferring or determining importance, not because they’re books that do what books do best, expand and enrich our notions of the world and the human experience. In this way, we severe strategies from the strategic end of meaning making, and we risk students thinking that ‘doing’ the strategy is more important than arriving at insight.

To rectify this, I’ve tried various ways to reconnect strategies more explicitly to meaning making. In addition to focusing on meaning while conferring, I’ve created charts over the years like the ones below that ask students to think about how the connections they were making were or weren’t helping them as readers (with the second one from a high school demonstration using the opening of Peter Orner‘s short story “The Raft”):

 And with a third-grade teacher who was reading aloud Beverley Naidoo’s moving story of life under apartheid Journey to Jo’Berg, I designed this chart to help the students ground their predictions in the details of the text while still honoring what they hoped would happen if the world was a better place:

Eventually, though, I discovered that if I simply asked students to more deliberately keep track of what meaning they were making as they were reading and what they were confused or wondered about (using the KNOW/WONDER chart I shared in an earlier post to make that visible), many students automatically made connections, inferences, predictions and asked questions without my needing to explicitly teach them to do so.

It’s what, in fact, I did last week as I looked at the excerpt from Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am! I acknowledged that I wasn’t completely sure I knew what that last line really meant, which led me to generate a slew of questions about what it might mean. To do that, I unconsciously drew on my own experience and knowledge of human nature (that is, I made some connections) to entertain some possible scenarios, which also involved some predicting and inferring. But I didn’t set out to connect or predict or question or infer for the sake of doing so. Instead, I set out to comprehend and understand what the author might be exploring, knowing that the details I encountered had been purposely chosen and carried some significance or meaning I needed to consider. And I used those strategies to help me think about the meaning those details might hold.

Most students I’ve shared this passage with, in grades four through seven, have done the exact same thing. They’ve developed questions and made connections to infer and develop hunches and drafts of understanding, without an explicit lesson on questioning, connecting, predicting or inferring. And those students who seem hesitant or reluctant are almost inevitably able to get better at it when given more time and encouragement to practice in a small group setting.

Finally, I and the teachers I’ve worked with have found that when we shift the focus of our lessons from the practice of strategies to the quest for meaning, students read more actively, with more engagement and excitement because they’re actually thinking. And thinking, as the writer Goethe said, “is more interesting than knowing.” It’s exhilarating, electric and thrilling. It’s the mind igniting with the sparks of insight and discovered meaning.

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

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: Reflecting on the Big Picture

New Years always prompts me to reflect as I look both backwards at the year just finished and forward to the one gearing up. And this year, with so many new terms in the air, like performance-based tasks and complexity bands, and more assessments than ever before, I’ve been feeling a need to set all those terms and assessments into the context of a bigger, more meaningful picture—what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of the great backwards planning book Understanding by Design, might call an ‘enduring understanding’.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, an enduring understanding is an idea or concept that offers lasting value throughout life, not just in the classroom. Additionally, it should reside at the heart of the discipline, require uncovering or unpacking through inquiry, and be engaging to students. Enduring understandings abound on the internet, with a quick search on google yielding ELA samples like this: “Reading is a process by which we construct meaning about the information being communicated by an author within a print or non-print medium,” and “Language captures and records human aspirations and imagination, evoking both emotion and reason.”

Both statements do seem like big, enduring ideas that reside at the heart of English Language Arts. But neither, I fear, are particularly good examples of the way that language captures aspirations, imagination and meaning. As I’ve suggested before, I think we might do better by turning to writers like Anne Lamott who in Bird by Bird, her wonderful advice book to aspiring writers, speaks to both the power of language and the process of reading like this:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfold world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die . . . . My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

For me, this goes to the heart of the discipline of English Language Arts. And as part of the backwards planning approach to curriculum development that Wiggins and McTighe prescribe, this understanding about the purpose and power of reading can be turned into essential questions that can frame students’ practice and exploration.

To be both engaging and authentic, I believe that essential questions should be truly open-ended and not loaded—that is, they should allow for real debate and disagreement, not just be our teaching points or agendas masquerading as questions. With that and Anne Lamott’s understanding in mind, those questions might sound like this:

  • Can a book really comfort us or make us feel less alone?
  • Can a narrative about someone else’s life really help us understand our own?
  • Can a book really tell us how we might behave? Can it show us how to live and die?
  • And if so, how does it do that?

The next step in the backwards planning approach would be to design assessments that would give students the opportunity to share what they thought about those questions, with evidence drawn from their reading experience as well as from texts. These assessments could take a variety of forms, from book reviews to podcasts to accountable talk circles, as well as the more traditional literary essay. But they’d all ask students to transact with a text to ultimately consider what meaning it held for them.

Of course, to do this, students will need strategies and skills, scaffolding and instruction that both models and allows them to experience for themselves how a reader enters a text knowing virtually nothing and emerges pages later with a deeper sense of what it means to be human. And this is where all those other terms and assessments come in. Knowing a students’ reading level, for instance, gives us some sense of what kind of text they have the best chance of transacting with; while instruction that provides the kind of concrete text-based strategies needed for navigating complexity bands allows students to access books that reflect the increasingly complexity of their own lives and world.

To help teachers facilitate this work, Dorothy Barnhouse and I also map out a process of reading in What Readers Really Do that helps students draft and revise their sense of what a text means as they make their way through it, with strategies and skills directly tied to meaning. We also adapt the work of the literary theorist Robert Scholes and break down the process into three distinct but related modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation, which we define like this:

  • Comprehension is the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line-by-line and page-by-page.
  • Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes.
  • Evaluation occurs when, having constructed an understanding of a text, a reader considers whether it has any personal or social value for him.

In the next few weeks I’ll put those words into action by using them with a short text, and I’ll share some ideas for meaningful assessments. But for now what seems important to remember is that reading levels and strategies and skills are the means to an end, not the end itself. And assessments need to be aligned to what we truly value, not just what’s easy to measure, with students asked to apply strategies and skills to some meaningful, enduring end. Only then, I think, can both we and our students begin to see the forest through the trees. And only then are we truly able to benefit from the insight reading can give us.

Helping Students Practice Problem Solving in ‘Stepped-Up’ Small Groups

© 2011 D.A.Wagner - http://dawagner.com

As I explored in last week’s post on rethinking ‘just right’ books, there are many more problems a reader needs to solve for a text to ‘make sense’ than the meaning or decoding of individual words—especially as texts become more complex. Readers often have to figure out basic information, like who’s who and what’s going on, just to have a foothold on a story. And while some readers do this automatically, picking up details and using them to infer what the writer is saying indirectly, many students don’t, which leaves them at risk for getting lost and being unable to access rich, more complex texts.

To help students practice this kind of problem solving in a way that encourages them to read more closely and builds their ability as readers, I’ve had to do some problem solving myself. Along with my What Readers Really Do co-author Dorothy Barnhouse, I’ve thought about how to adapt the structures of guided reading to offer small group instruction that more directly engages students in the problem-solving process of meaning making.

Like typical guided reading, the approach I’ve developed is aimed at a small group of students that present similar needs, who I gather together to read an excerpt from a text that’s been carefully chosen not just by its level but by the particular demands it puts on a reader. I don’t, however, automatically engage in pre-reading activities—that is, no picture walks or front-loading of information or predicting based on the cover as a simple matter of course. Nor do I ask students to practice the usual round-up of comprehension strategies, such as connecting or visualizing (though these sometimes crop up).

Instead I design lessons that encourage students to attend to the details of a text in order to solve one or more of the problems the text presents. And to help students get a feel for that kind of thinking, I sometimes begin with a text below their reading level then ‘step up’ to one that’s more complex.

Dorothy and I unpack a classroom example of this kind of ‘stepped-up’ approach at the end of Chapter 3, which is currently available online at Heinemann. But to illustrate what this could look like here, let’s look at how I might help a small group of level P and Q students solve one particular problem readers encounter as texts get more complex: figuring out who a first-person narrator is and what kind of situation they’re in.

I’d introduce the lesson by letting the students know that when they read a book with a first-person narrator, one of their very first jobs as readers is to think about who the narrator is and what seems to be happening to them. Sometimes, I’d explain, it’s really obvious because the writer comes right out and tells us, like the way the Geronimo Stilton books always say, “I, Geronimo Stilton, . . . .” or the Amber Brown books say, “I, Amber Brown, . . . .” But other times it’s not so clear because, instead of saying things directly, the writer leaves us little clues that we have to piece together to figure this out. Then we’d look at the first page of a text below the student’s independent reading level, like Leftover Lily, a level M book by Sally Warner, where basic information is conveyed in indirect ways:

Even students who’ve been assessed at higher reading levels aren’t always able to figure out that the I’ is Lily without slowing down and really thinking about it. Some students, for example, initially think that Daisy is the narrator because she uses the word I; while some think there are four people in the scene, Daisy, Lily, LaVon and a still-as-yet-to-be-named ‘I’.

I’d let the students bat ideas back and forth, reminding myself of the critical need to keep my own mouth shut and jumping in only to ask them what made them think what they did. This process would ultimately allow students to figure out that the I’ is Lily and that she’s being excluded from what had been a threesome by Daisy, who doesn’t seem to be very nice, despite the smile and perfect hair. And it would allow me to make the thinking the students did visible by naming and charting their moves:

  • You thought about who was talking to whom in the dialogue
  • You thought about who was feeling what
  • You thought about who the pronouns referred to (I, we my, us, her, she)
  • You thought about the title of the book
  • You looked at the front cover for clues
  • You thought about the characters’ relationship to each other
  • You questioned each others’ thinking
  • You tested your ideas out until you found one that made sense to everyone
  • You realized that the narrator’s name was tucked into a line of dialogue

I’d then ‘step up’ the group to a text at their level that presents the same kind of problem-solving challenges as Leftover Lily did, such as Just Juice by Karen Hesse. Here’s the first three paragraphs of the book, which you’ll see requires readers to infer both who’s telling the story and what’s going on in order for it to ‘make sense’:

This text has the added challenges of unfamiliar vocabulary (truant officer) and dialect (the word “mought”), along with the fact that Juice isn’t always recognizable immediately as a name. But here again, rather than front-load this, I’d let the students wrestle with the text, stepping in only to remind them of what they did in the previous excerpt that helped them solve the same kind of problems that they’re facing now.

Once again, this process allows most students to figure out that Juice is the narrator and that she’s hiding from someone called a truant officer, who’s job it is to make sure kids get to school, which Juice doesn’t want to do for reasons still unknown. Depending on how much time that took, I’d ‘step up’ the students that same day or the next to a text above their level that posed similar problems, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which starts out like this:

This texts involves yet more challenges, among them the fact that the narrator’s name doesn’t appear until the second page and then is tucked into a line of remembered dialogue. Many students will also need to keep reading to be certain of what’s alluded to here: that no one is singing anymore because Anna and Caleb’s mother is gone. But feeling more accomplished now, they’d enter the text as problem-solving readers, on the look-out for clues that might help them figure out who’s who and what’s going on. And they’d use the same strategies that had allowed them to be successful before. For that’s what the bullet points listed above are: They are text-based strategies whose application leads to meaning more directly than typical strategies do because they keep students in the text in the active role of problem solvers.

And that’s where we want them to be.

Rethinking What Makes a ‘Just Right’ Book Just Right

Too often when I pull up a chair with teachers to confer with students during independent reading, we come to the same conclusion: With some stellar exceptions, the students aren’t doing a whole lot with the books they’re reading. Many, in fact, are downright lost or unable to say more about their book than what the blurb on the back cover says. And those who do manage to retell in a way that suggests they’re comprehending do little more than tick off a sequence of events as if everything that happened was of equal importance—despite the fact that most are reading books at their assessed reading level, a.k.a. a ‘just right’ book.

I think this happens for a number of reasons, the first of which has to do with what we should expect from a ‘just right’ book. According to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, leveled texts provide students with “the problem solving opportunities that build the reading process.” But they don’t guarantee that a student will take advantage of those opportunities and solve whatever problems—of decoding, inferring or holding a story line in your head over dozens of pages, to name just a few—the text might present.

There’s also the matter of our expectations, as seen in the tools we give students for determining if a book is just right. Often I see charts in classrooms that offer students guidelines for assessing a ‘just right’ book. I like this one in particular because it acknowledges enjoyment as a key factor. But the second bullet point about understanding can be problematic, as Ellin Keene demonstrated in the opening anecdote of her book To Understand, which recounts a conference she had with a student named Jamika. As she often does, Keene began the conference by asking Jamika if her book made sense, at which point Jamika exploded in a tirade that began with “‘Y’all always say that—does this book make sense?'” and ended with the sobering indictment, “‘But, none a ya’ll ever says what make sense mean.'”

To both assess a ‘just right’ book and help ensure that it makes sense, we also give students the 5 Finger Rule,  which asks them to read the first page of a book and count the number of words they can’t figure out by either decoding or using context clues. If they struggle with less than four or five words, the books is deemed to be just right. But that seems to assume that the only problem to solve in a text—and all that making sense hinges on—is figuring out individual words.

But let’s look at the first page of the Level R book The Sword Thief, by Peter Lerangis, one of the books in The 39 Clues series, which is popular in grade 4 on up. And let’s see how many problems a reader must solve, beyond decoding or vocabulary, for it to make sense:

Students who’ve read other books in the series have a better chance of solving the problems this page presents than those who jump into the story here. But even they might have trouble making sense of this, beginning with the very first line, which will throw most literal thinkers for a loop. To make sense of what follows, readers also must infer everything that’s happening, since nothing but the characters’ name and their relationship is stated directly. They must infer, for instance, that Amy and Dan are at an airport from the detail about the conveyor belt, that the airport is in a place called Venice from a sign, and from the siblings’ exchange of dialogue, that the battered black duffle bag belongs to them and is bulging with samurai swords that they fear will be found in `a random luggage search.

We could say, thus, that in order for this text to make sense readers must problem solve what’s happening and where—and perhaps even who’s in the scene, since readers could also come away thinking that Jackie Chan and a ninja warrior are in the airport, too. Unfortunately my experience leads me to believe that many readers won’t engage in trying to solve these problems but will just keep reading, picking up what they can and glossing over the rest, until they’re either lost or they reach the point where the story aligns with the back cover blurb, which they’ll use to ground themselves instead of using the actual details the author has provided.

So to raise the bar for what makes a ‘just right’ book right and encourage students to engage more in the kind of problem solving needed for a book to make sense, some of the teachers I work with and I have been experimenting with introducing another bullet point to classroom ‘Just Right’ charts:

  • You can figure out who’s in each scene, where and when it takes place, and what’s going on

This doesn’t mean students have to understand everything; few readers actually do. They skip over unfamiliar idioms and foreign language phrases. They don’t always catch every reference or allusion, or infer every detail’s significance. But they try to get the basics.

It also doesn’t mean that understanding consists of just getting the who, what, when and where. But it is a starting place—and a reasonable expectation for an active reader in a book that’s supposedly ‘just right.’ And so far, the results have been good, with many students reading more attentively and others more aware of when they’re confused because they now have a more concrete tool and strategy for monitoring and assessing their comprehension.

Of course, to hold students accountable for this, we need to give them some instruction and plenty of time to practice. But I’ll save that for a future post that explores what that can look like.

All Inferences Are Not Created Equal

Here in New York City, we’ve been thinking a lot about text complexity, especially about what makes a text complex. School networks have traded professional articles. Consultants have helped teachers create rubrics to assess the degree of complexity in a text. Yet oddly enough there’s been far less discussion about how we can instructionally support students to meet the demands of those texts.

My own sense is that, beyond denser print and more complicated syntax, text complexity is directly linked to how a writer conveys information, with complex texts revealing more information—about everything from the characters and themes to shifts in time and setting—indirectly. And this means that in order to access that information readers need to infer.

Given how critical inferring is, you’d think we’d have a boatload of strategies up our sleeves to help students do it. But all too often we rely on a variation of “It Says, I Know, and So,” which asks students to connect something in the text to their own experience or prior knowledge in order to infer what the writer might be saying indirectly. This will, indeed, work some of the time. But it doesn’t always work because inferences aren’t actually all made the same way and no single strategy will do.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the text I shared in last week’s post, Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio, which I used with a small group of students who struggled with reading increasingly complex texts. The book is dedicated to “Everyone who gives up a part of himself,” and the first chapter is titled “American Names.” Here’s the passage from that first chapter that gave the students so much trouble:

The passage requires an enormous amount of inferring to simply figure out what’s happened, let alone to start thinking about why. When the students first read it, they were able to infer that Miss Pringle was the teacher by connecting what it said in the text to what they knew from their own lives—i.e., that teachers usually have titles like Miss and often address students as ‘Class’. But the same “It Says, I Know, and So” kind of thinking also led them to infer that Arthur Rodriquez was another boy in the class, not the narrator. And visualizing, which we often teach as another strategy for inferring, wouldn’t have made things better.

Experienced readers, however, make sense of the passage by doing something else: They make connections within the text, not outside of it, connecting one detail to another like the dots in those old Connect the Dots games. Some readers, for instance, might work backwards to connect Miss Pringle’s line to the chapter title, the dedication and the first page, which focuses on the legacy of Arturo’s name. Others might work forward, through the rest of the paragraph, inferring what was done by whom to make things easier, who wasn’t asked about what, and how a person could be erased like a ‘used-up word on a chalkboard,’ in order to figure out what happened. These inferences would require readers to connect those lines to their prior knowledge of a highly specific sort. They’d need to draw on their understanding of how pronouns, sentence fragments and similes work to infer what each line meant. And then they have to connect each of the fragments to Miss Pringle’s statement to arrive at an understanding of what, exactly but indirectly, Miss Pringle did.

In this way, experienced readers infer by a process that could be expressed like this:

Text Detail + Text Detail + Text Detail = Meaning

rather than like this:

Text Detail + Prior Knowledge or Experience = Meaning

The students actually used the former process when, after realizing that Arthur was Arturo by making an intra-text connection, they inferred that Miss Pringle had changed many students’ names and that Alicia wasn’t happy about it. Had they used the latter process instead and connected those dark bruises to their prior knowledge, the chances are good that they would have inferred that Alicia had two black eyes. And had they not been connecting the detail dots to draft and revise their understanding as they read, they might also have been mystified by the exchange between Arturo and Alicia, not only not getting who was talking to whom but why Alice would say Alicia’s gone.

So if we want students to read complex texts—not just for the sake of doing so, but to fully engage in rich reading experiences that can inform and enhance their lives—we need to deepen the way we teach inferring and offer more precise strategies. We need to teach them how readers use their knowledge of pronouns and dialogue to steer through dramatized scenes, how they figure out what figurative language suggests, how they make sense of sentence fragments, and how they might use a title as a lens to interpret some of what follows.

Most importantly, though, we need to teach our students this: While they sometimes can figure out what a writer might be saying indirectly by connecting a detail to their own experience, that strategy alone might not help them know what that detail means in the context of the text. The only way to figure that out is to teach them to connect one detail to another, dot by dot by dot, until they see something they couldn’t see before—and they let out the ‘Oh’ sound of insight.

Shoptalk for Readers

Among the many books on the shelves behind my desk is a worn copy of Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers by the master writing teacher Donald Murray. The book is a collection of quotes by writers that describe their habits and process, organized in chapters with wonderful titles like “Being Found by a Subject,” “Riding the Flow” and “Planning for Surprise.”

I discovered the book many years ago when I was working for the Teachers College Writing Project, and like other books by Donald Murray, Shoptalk became a kind of gospel, offering guidance, inspiration and a vision to those of us who wanted to ground our writing instruction in the work that real writers do. I’d bring in quotes to teachers I worked with, and together we’d create charts and mini-lessons, sharing, for example, Mark Twain’s injunction, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream,” for a lesson on show, don’t tell, and using Edward Albee’s assertion that “I write to find out what I’m thinking about,” as an invitation to students to use writing to explore, not just record, what’s on their mind. Then we’d return to those quotes when it came time to share, asking who in the room had used Mark Twain’s advice or who had discovered something new by exploring their experience and perceptions.

I loved Shoptalk for the way that even the chapter titles brought depth and life and soul to the words typically found on classroom charts outlining the steps in the writing process. And when my work began to encompass reading, too, I longed for words that would give soul and meaning to the often simplistic and reductive language I found in the charts that were everywhere in classrooms, listing comprehension strategies, the habits of good readers and the author’s purpose.

And so I turned to writers and began collecting quotes that seemed to more vividly capture the purpose and the craft of reading. Many found their way into What Readers Really Do, and some I’ve brought into classrooms. But here’s one that I recently discovered. It’s from a poem by the amazing poet Marie Howe that explores both the challenges and consolations of reading novels. I’m sharing part of it here, but if you click on the poem, it will open up in a new tab where you can read the poem as published in Boston Review in its entirety.

                                How much richer might our students’ notions of reading be if we shared this kind of shoptalk with them and learned to read from writers? For here’s the question: What is Marie Howe’s purpose?

A. To persuade

B. To inform

C. To entertain

D. All of the above

E. None of the above

The answer seems not quite as easy as pie. Nor should it be, I think, if we want our students to read thoughtfully and deeply, not just match a text up with a word.

Teaching Uncertainty in Reading

In my last post I called for honoring uncertainty and confusion as the place from which understanding starts. Interestingly enough, it seems like a theme I’ve been encountering a lot lately. In the last few weeks my inbox has been full of links to articles with titles like “The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom,” “The Pedagogy of Uncertainty,” and “Helping Students Deal with Uncertainty in the Classroom,” in which Ben Johnson suggests that teachers should “inject a little uncertainty into their lessons” to help students build resilience, confidence and problem-solving skills.

But how do we do that in reading? How do we explicitly acknowledge the confusion and uncertainty readers naturally face while providing students with the strategies and skills they need to navigate that?

In What Readers Really Do, my co-author and I share a simple tool: a basic T-chart that helps students clearly see and keep track of what they’re grasping from a text (from direct information they’ve comprehended or from what they’ve been able to figure out, frequently by inferring), along with what they’re uncertain or curious about. We label the left side “What We Know” and the right side “What We Wonder,” and we read very slowly so that everyone can see both the uncertainty and what readers do to deal with that as they read.

We share many classroom examples in the book, noticing and naming the moves we make both as readers and as teachers. But to get a taste and feel for how we use the chart here, let’s look at the opening page of Bound to Be Bad, a Level M book from the Ivy +  Bean series by Annie Barrows, and see how a KNOW/WONDER T-chart might help make uncertainty and problem-solving more visible.

As experienced readers we come away from this passage with a clear understanding of what’s literally happening along with some ideas about what kind of person Bean is and how her family relates to her. If we look closely, though, we can see that even this brief passages presents many challenges to readers, especially around inferring. And while some students might be able to navigate it with ease, others—even those above Level M—might feel a little confused. And even fewer will engage in thinking about the character more deeply without prompting.

If we slow down the process, however, and read the text sentence by sentence, doing some light modeling right at the start then letting the students take over, our T-chart might wind up looking something like this:

Whether using it in a whole class, small group or a one-on-one conference setting, the T-chart captures the uncertainty of reading while also yielding a slew of great questions. When we help children acknowledge what they don’t know in this way, they’re more likely to become active problem-solvers, picking up the kind of small textual clues—like the pronoun that lets us know Bean’s a girl—they might otherwise have missed. Also some of the questions speak to deeper concerns—like what kind of people the characters are, what motivates them and how they relate—and these questions can act as lines of inquiry that help students read on with more purpose and intention, attending to details they might have glossed over because they’re now searching clues. And in their quest for answers, they’re more likely to infer without us pulling our hair out.

All this and more can happen when we embrace uncertainty. As the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm says, “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” And so we must not only honor uncertainty; we must directly teach it.