Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Come Back to Comprehension

Usually you would tweet from a conference, but today I will blog from the Statewide Literacy Partnership Conference. Sharon Taberski is the keynote speaker. At our table, the comments keep going back and forth among the participants - sometimes agreeing with Sharon and sometimes taking exception to all or part of her ideas.

We all agree that making meaning is the most important goal of reading and listening. Comprehension requires the use of a constellation of skills and strategies that the brain connects to previously acquired knowledge, to make sense of what is read or heard. In addition, we add the new knowledge to our store of background knowledge. Sometimes we gain knowledge from life experiences, sometimes from reading and listening.

Why do we ask students to predict before they read? Do we predict before we see a movie? We may make an assumption before we spend money on a movie but it is not a requirement to make a prediction about the movie in order to enjoy it. I think we should teach students right from the beginning to think about what they already know about a topic before a reading/listening experience, but more importantly, to generate their own questions to see whether or not the author answers those questions. Sometimes we read to find out something we did not already know.

Watching a video to illustrate the DRTA (Directed Reading Thinking activity), my table mates and I were having a hard time sitting still. "When do the students get to read the book?" one said. Routines that the teacher was using, set up winners and losers - those who can get classmates to agree with them; those who cannot. After a long discussion about the topic, they finally look at the Table of Contents. Next they looked at the pictures. By this time the students were having trouble sitting still and there had been several opportunities for students to take their classmates off on tangents. Meanwhile, one of the students was reading the book surreptitiously under the table. Isn't that the point? The children need to read.

Next Sharon illustrated her use of "talk moves". She pointed out text in the book and the need to get students to pay attention to words that limit - some, all, never etc. She pointed out that she mentioned to the students what "good readers" do. Can we ban the phrase "good readers"? I have already done so for me. We are all readers - some very experienced and others not so experienced. If there are good readers, there must be bad readers. There are no bad readers.

Q: "How does your philosophy fit with RtI and working with struggling learners?" A: "I don't know anything about RtI. Strugglers need more time, more good instruction, more of the good stuff, need to read voluminously - books that are just right. It's not that complicated. We will read the complex text to them" ME: It is that complicated! The students need to learn to read complex texts - that's the whole point of the new standards.

Q: "How do you assess background knowledge? A: "I don't think you do. We need a new orientation. We need to take seriously our job of bringing content into reading and reading into content area instruction." ME: Another complicated idea that needs careful investigation and support for its implementation. We do need more content in what we ask young readers to consider. Background knowledge is not one thing. It depends on the knowledge area.

Sharon walked us through Hart and Risley. It is important to know/consider your audience. This audience, I think, have seen this many times. We need answers, solutions, our schools (and families) need help with this, and the economy in Massachusetts and in our country is only getting more challenging for more people.

What can we do?
  • use rich, robust language; teachers are models all day long [purposefully or not] (Johnston, 2004; Kegan & Lahey, 2001)
  • provide children with the beautiful language of good books (see Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards at http://www.doe.mass.edu/candi/commoncore/)
  • provide small group oral language intervention for students who need practice (Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, 2008)
  • provide opportunities for purposeful conversations (Zweirs & Crawford, 2011)
  • engage families in the work of educating their children (Evans, 2004).

Continue to work together to share ideas that work and the success that comes from collaborative effort. The conference participants are a savvy group of educational professionals. I trust that my colleagues in the Southeast can separate what was beneficial reinforcement of what we know to be true and dismiss what was not helpful. Our network meetings this spring will be planned and presented by our partner, the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES). I have provided feedback and suggestions, as I hope you did as well, and hope that our meetings will support your challenging work in meaningful ways.

Reminder: our dates are April 30 and May 21. According to our English Language Arts and Literacy Framework, those who are college and career ready,"comprehend as well as critique. (they are) engaged, open-minded - but discerning - readers and listeners...question assumptions...and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning." (p. 9). I look forward to joining you in this important work as we address the challenges and opportunities provided by our new standards.


Evans, R. (2004). Family matters: How schools can cope with the crisis in childrearing. San Francisco, CA. Josey-Bass.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse learners. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work. San Francisco, CA. Josey-Bass.

Massachusetts curriculum framework for English language arts and literacy, grades pre-kindergarten to 12, incorporating the common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. (March, 2011). Available at http://www.doe.mass.edu/candi .

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.