Problem Based Reading

One of the perks of being a literacy coach is that people give me a lot of professional resources to read. I have a stack of 5 at home that I need to get through, but I’m pausing on this one book because it has me excited.

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton has changed the way I think about reading instruction. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher changed my writing instruction, but I still felt a little lost when it came to reading. Most of my frustration came from how students rely on me (or the internet) to interpret their reading for them. I wanted to get them thinking on their own,  revising their ideas,  and tracing patterns through their books, but for some reason, they always come back to me.

I stopped using question/answer sheets within a year or two of teaching because I hated them and my students hated them. I moved to QCharts and teaching students how to talk about books, but they still seemed to be dependent on me come analysis time.

Then I open up Vicki Vinton’s book. I felt like I was yelling “Yes!” for every page.

In the introduction, Vinton cites a study done by Education Trust which found that “‘many – if not most- assignments were over-scaffolded … [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them” (xvii).  Some of her advice contradicts how I was instructed to teach about reading. Remember “set the purpose” instruction for reading?  I was given a passage about a house, and I was told to read it like a thief and highlight important information. Then I was told to read it like a real estate agent and highlight important information. The goal of this model lesson was to help me see that readers pull out different ideas, so I, as the teacher,  would remember to set the purpose for reading, so students pull out the ideas I want them to pull out. This type of instruction will help students find the information that I want them to find, but will it help them understand a text when there is no one to direct their purpose? What if their purpose is simply to figure out what the text means?

Vinton observes that “Students are repeatedly asked to analyze particular aspects of a text – the development of a character, a text’s structure, an author’s choice of words – rather than to think more deeply about how those pieces all work together in complex and meaningful ways” (4). So the question, of course, is: How do we do this? Section Two of the book is dedicated to walking teachers through what problem-based reading instruction might look like in a classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was at Dundas Valley Secondary School in my friend and colleague Crystal Dumitru’s class. She is using Cherie Dimaline’s novel the Marrow Thieves with the students in her ENG 2P class. They were on the second chapter, so I asked Crystal if I could jump in and experiment a little, and, being the wonderfully accommodating human being that she is, she let me.

I decided to try the text know/wonder chart that Vinton outlines in her book. Before I get into what happened, I want to repeat Vinton’s caution: “It’s also important to note that the chart can outgrow its usefulness…, and that, as a scaffold, it should only be used as a temporary support” (95). The goal is always for the students to do the thinking on their own.

I started our know/wonder chart by selecting a passage from Marrow Thieves that revealed information about the story and characters, but that also left the reader with questions:

I couldn’t have him mad at me; he was all I had left. I clambered out the window and folded upward to grasp the slats on the roof. I shimmied up, belly to the wood, butt pulled down tight. I lifted my head once, just high enough to look over the small peak in the center, just enough to see the first Recruiter lift a whistle to his mouth, insert it under his sandy moustache, and blow that high-pitched terror tone from our nightmares. Under the roof I heard Mitch start banging the plywood walls, screaming, ‘Tabernacle! Come get me, devils!’ (3).

I asked students to either tell me something they know as a result of that passage or a question they have as a result of the passage.  You can see their thinking on the chart.  We filled three of them! Often students found that a statement of knowledge resulted in a new question. The arrows indicate when a question was in response to knowledge or sometimes when we were able to find an answer.

First of all, they were amazingly good at this task. I couldn’t keep up with all the statements and questions. Second, I love how when a student makes an error in reading, this process helps them self-correct.

For example, one student claimed that the Recruiters were hunters, but other students disagreed. They thought it was more than that. So we turned the student’s statement into a question: “Who are the recruiters?” After we read the next passage, students were able to answer this question with evidence from the text.

The teacher’s only role here is to write down the know and wonder sides and ask students to explain their thinking using the text. I tried my best (and was mostly successful) to avoid making interpretations for them. One student raised her hand and started with “Well, on this page it says that…” My job was then to name what she did as a reader to make it more concrete for other students. The next time I was in the room, that same student had graduated to using sticky notes in her book (without any prompting from me). Sticky notes! An English teacher’s dream.

The hardest part of this whole activity was not reacting to their amazing answers- I definitely failed at this. I was basically bouncing around the room exclaiming at everything they said because I was so excited that we were having such a rich discussion about a book. I was even excited when a student had that “misreading” of the recruiters because I was able to practice how to help the student think a little deeper using the text.

We did this know/wonder chart for the first four chapters, and then I asked them to continue on their own for the fifth chapter. I will be back in this class tomorrow to see what they’ve been thinking about the book. My next step for the middle of the book would be to help them use the know/wonder charts to identify patterns or symbols that repeatedly appear on the know/wonder charts. We would then turn these into pattern tracing charts- which I will write about once I try it.

I’m very grateful to my colleague, Carolyn Venema, for putting this book into my hands (and lending me Vinton’s other book). I feel like I finally have the tools to teach my students to do the work of interpretation rather than telling them what they should notice and think. This type of reading instruction takes a different kind of preparation. You have to read the text and think about where the author may leave unanswered questions so you can select passages to work through with your class, but it is well worth the time and effort. I can’t wait to try this again.

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