Feel The Words

One of my favorite reading questions is, “How do the words make you feel?”

It’s not a very Common Core-ish question, but it is an extremely valuable question. As a writer, I am always acutely aware of how my words could make my reader feel. Empathy with the reader is essential to developing a writing voice.

Readers need to approach the page with empathy for the characters and empathy for the writer. Decoding and comprehension can’t end with understanding the denotation of the words. We all realize that, of course. That’s why we teach lessons in mood and tone. We also teach vocabulary lessons denotation and connotation. That’s all good.

However, we need to take it up a notch.

Monitoring “how the words make you feel” needs to go hand-in-hand with monitoring comprehension. “How do the words make you feel,” should be part of any questioning strategy we use in the classroom. There needs to be a signpost for it, or at least a question related to a signpost (for those of you who follow Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s book Notice and Note). If you are a devotee of Cris Tovani, as I am, you should have your students annotate their feelings as often as they annotate their thoughts.

To feel the words is to understand the words deeply. Too often, our students just read the words, without connecting them to any thought or feeling. Students’ reading goals are often to get to the end of the paragraph, or the page, or the paragraph in the most painless way possible.

Well, unfortunately, in reading as in exercise, no pain often equals no gain.

Think of the last time you asked students to read anything to themselves, whether it be an assigned piece, reading workshop, or SSR. How many students cried? How many laughed? How many got angry?

Intellectual responses alone are not sufficient for deep comprehension. If you have kids reading Number the Stars, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Book Thief, you should spot a tear or two once in a while. If they are reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, you should hear a chuckle. Kids should be frantically flipping pages to get the end of an Alex Rider thriller or a Percy Jackson story.

If your students are too willing to put their books down, that’s a sign they aren’t really feeling the work.

We teachers are part of the problem. We get so wrapped up with comprehension questions and constructed responses. We preach, “Find the textual evidence!” when we should be teaching, “Feel the words!”

The Common Core encourages a close reading of “the words themselves.” We need to understand that the words are not enough. Words weaved together properly, transcend what’s on the page. They become something greater in the mind of the reader.

I’m fond of teaching with poetry because every poem is short and packed with meaning. Teach students to become good readers of poetry, and reading prose is a piece of cake. You can’t detach feeling from poetry, anymore than you can take color from a painting or the harmony from a piece of music.

(By the way, there is no logical reason to separate poetry from prose in reading instruction, or literature instruction. We need to break down the artificial dividers we place between forms and genres. Our readers will thank us for it.)

Feeling the words can be messy. Describing emotional responses is more difficult than performing intellectual tasks. Some teachers might have a problem with that.

Get over it.

Response to literature should never be clean and formulaic, as much as the standardized test developers might like that. You shouldn’t be able to have a clean discussion about literature. Your students should be raising questions you can’t answer. They should contradict themselves and each other. At times, confusion should abound. Argument should be the rule of the day.

My favorite analogy of reading instruction comes from Nancie Atwell. In In the Middle, she compared discussing books in class to having conversations at the dinner table. Now, I don’t know about you, but in my house dinner table conversations are seldom calm and peaceful. The tend to toward the passionate side.

Our classroom discussions should also be loaded with passionate intensity, to borrow liberally for Yeats. The quickest way to get our conversations to that point is to teach students to feel the words.

Tumbleweeds and Drool

My friend, mentor, former professor, fellow blogger, Shakespearean actor, member in good standing of the Ancient Order of Loyal  Philadelphia Phillies Fans, Don Quixote charging at the windmills of reformy education, Russ Walsh (russonreading.blogspot.com) had some interesting things to say this weak on paralyzing obsession one right answer in American schools. In doing so, he hit on one of my favorite hot button topics.

The belief in one right answer is paralyzing. Literally. I remember working with a wonderful language arts teacher named Elizabeth Procida in a class of learners retreating into quickly reluctance. Whenever we attempted to cross the border into critical thinking, Liz’s room became morgue-like. (Actually, that’s being kind. I grew up the grandson of a funeral director and I often saw more life in the morgue.) We teased the kids about tumbleweeds rolling down the aisles into puddles of drool.

Liz and I eventually concluded that these students had either been trained, or some how had divined, that there were definitive right or wrong answers to all questions, and if they didn’t know what to say, they sat on their hands and clenched their jaws tight.

Tumbleweeds and drool.

We wanted students to predict, speculate, theorize and suggest. We wanted them to take risks.

Tumbleweeds and drool.

We tried the normal stuff: Wait time. Think-pair-share. Jot down ideas.
Tumbleweeds. Drool.

Finally, we came up with a “new” questioning technique. We called it, “Give us the best wrong answer.”

Why do you think the author chose to write in present tense instead of past tense, we might ask.


Okay, give us your best wrong answers, we would say.

A few shaky hands appeared.

Why do you think this character change will be permanent?


Okay, give us your best wrong answers.

Spotty hand raising.

Come on, we said. Absolutely anybody can give a wrong answer.

Slowly more hands started to appear. Then more. Then even more.

The “best wrong answer” strategy took away from the students any fear of being wrong. Wrong answers became okay. They became a challenge. Students started to take risks. They began to think outside the box a little.

And guess what? In a field of “best wrong answers” we began to find some very insightful, very thoughtful answers.

What we were actually doing wasn’t much different than brainstorming. But the way we phrased to question took any pressure off the kids to give right answers all the time.

To promote higher levels of thinking, Liz and I discovered, you have to remove the pressure of always being right.

You have to give you students permission to be wrong. You have to give them permission to try and try again. Permission to fail as often as necessary, until they find the best possible answers.

Right or wrong.

Shameless promotional plugs:

If you aren’t already following Russ Walsh, check out the Russ on Reading blog and associated Facebook fan. I’ve been lucky enough to meet many of the celebrities in literacy today: Ralph Fletcher, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Cris Tovani, and a bunch more. I love every one of them, but I will also tell you that Russ has every bit the knowledge and expertise as these guys.

Liz Procida is a tireless teacher leader. Check out her Teacher Pay Teacher store, https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Struggle-To-Success. She really does need the money.



Nonconformity, Haiku, and the Thoughtful Art of Teaching Grammar as Craft

I can still hear my college literature professor reading this to our class:

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,

We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,

To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica

Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,

         And to-day we have naming of parts.

This verse is begins “The Naming of Parts” from Henry Reed’s collection, The Lessons of War. The poem captures an army drill instructor’s rote dissection of an M-1 rifle, and the distracted, lyrical thoughts of a young recruit, daydream, mind elsewhere.

To me the poem, mirrors the traditional approach to teaching grammar and the effect on students.. Let’s see if I can imitate Reed:

To-day we name the  parts of speech. Yesterday,

We had capital letters. And to-morrow morning,

We shall have how to punctuate the end of a sentence.

But to-day, we name the parts of speech. The short stop

gobbles up the ball, pivots, and underhands it the second basement,

And to-day we have the naming of parts of speech.

Reading aloud to the class, my professor, an Air Force veteran, did a remarkably authentic job capturing the monotonous tone of a military DI who had delivered the same monolog countless times to a room full of mind-dead pawns. I am not sure how Dr. Terry Donahue would feel about the approach to grammar instruction I advocate. He was a fierce taskmaster himself when it came to writing instruction.  Much like a dedicated drill instruction who truly cares about training men to return home and whole from war, not just to go fight one, Dr. Donahue did an admirable job preparing my class of freshman for college-level writing demands.

The naming of parts, Reed and Donahue would agree, has very little to do with thinking. It’s about complying and conforming, without much thought. Naming the parts of speech, capitalizing letters, punctuating the end of sentences, all of that is about compliance, too. It’s all about conforming to a sets of restrictions and definitions. That is a commonly held view of what grammar is: the restrictions placed on how to form a sentence.

From among all the great writers you have ever read or studied, how many of them would fall into the category of conformists? How many felt they had to blindly comply to any set of boundaries placed on them by agents and publishers? I think we would agree conformity and compliance are rarely qualities we find among great writers.

Oh, there are exceptions. As a freelance journalist, I comply and conform to the demands of my clients because, honestly, I like to get paid. The magazines and news websites I work  for often have set formats for articles. They have their own an established voice and style. I have done web-based work for the New York Times Co.,  and I freely admit I don’t have the journalistic chops to argue style with anyone at that company.

Conforming to a certain style isn’t intrinsically bad. For the writer, it allows emphasis to fall on content, structure and organization…all essential elements to good writing. That kind of conforming doesn’t shut off my thinking as a writer. It focuses it.

In every great writer, however, there is some element of rebellion. I’ve been an editor, and I have had to squash it a few times. Ironic, I know.

e.e. cummings often chose not capitalize his initials, as if he had the right to break the rules whenever he wanted. I chuckle every time I hear a teacher talk about how important it is for students to know and use 100 synonyms for “said” when Ernest Hemingway rarely saw the need to use any other word. Then, there’s James Joyce, who we know once wrote: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Whatever the Hell any of that means.

Every writer, to some degree, is Bartleby, the Scrivener.

Writing is about using grammar as tool for shaping something meaningful and colorful, even three-or four- dimensional, out of a one-dimensional sheet of blank, white paper.

Grammar has to be taught, and taught well, not as a form of conformity but as a way to engage thinking.

We need to show our students how to think like writers. As I draft this blog, I not only think about what I want to say, but how I want to say it. I’m making choices to quote poems and novels. I have sipped in literary illusions. I imitated a poem, all as means to reach this point. Go back and check and you will see compound sentences joined by comma splices and lists without a junction before the last item. First, second and third person. Deliberate fragments. I meander in and out of formal and informal style.

The thoughtful choice of how to arrange words. That is what grammar is. Or, grammar is that. Grammar, that it is. (To employ  grammar, you must experiment.)

I once had an 8th grade class of competently bland writers. Someone must have taught them that every sentence had eight words and started with a capital T in The and ended with a period. Five sentence paragraphs. Five paragraph essays.

Their literary analysis essays on Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken” droned on as dispassionately Reed’s drill instructor. To fix this I tried to show them adverb clauses, participle phrases, gerunds, and the like.  We drilled sentence combining like it would save them when the bomb went off.

The class did great with all the grammar book exercises.

Improve the actual writing? Not so much.

One day, in utter frustration a thought pops into my head. I have no idea where it comes from. That’s how inspiration works, I guess.

I’m reading some dreadfully dreadful essays aloud — trying to intimidate good writing out of kids, because that’s a strategy —  I stop, drop the papers on my desk, and I say, “You know what. Let’s write some haiku.”

Haiku is a poetic form with it’s own set rules. We keep the idea of three lines and the five-seven-five syllable pattern. I am not  so concerned about the subject matter.

We write haiku where the topic is the first word, where the topic is the last word, where it is implied, but not stated. We write haiku in the fewest number of words possible — three — and the greatest number of words — seventeen.

In a class period or two, these extremely unimaginative writers become problem solvers, manipulating words like puzzle pieces.  Creating…


I wish I had a few samples, but they disappeared in a move from one classroom to the next. I remember one was about the golden ratio of all things. Talk about an odd topic for a poem. Odd topics = real thinking.

The haiku exercise is a game changer. Suddenly, my students no longer think like compliant 8th graders. They  think like writers.

Then, before they begin their next essay assignment, I simply say, “Write every sentence like you are writing haiku.”

Talk about a lightbulb over the head moment. (Notice how I play with verb tense in the last few paragraphs. I take a little risk to see what I can do, play with how how the writing sounds. I revise it a few times. Playing. Thinking. Experimenting. You, the teacher, need to do this in front of your students. You don’t have to do it well, you just have to show them how you try to make it better.)

In terms of grammar, what did the students do differently? They manipulated sentence structure and played with word choice. In the process, they established entirely new writing voices for themselves.

Haiku  is a tremendous vehicle for teaching craft.

When you teach grammar, teach it in the context of “This is how writer’s think as they write.” Avoid words like always and never. Instead, encourage students to think, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” and “How will this sound to the reader?”

Show them a passage from a mentor text with lots of compound and complex sentences (or whatever is you think they need to work with). Ask your students to speculate on why the writer chose to use them. Then, get your students to try them out. They will be thinking like writers, maybe for the first time ever.

Encourage them to imitate mentors, but never get locked into one way of thinking or doing. Never allow your writers to ask you, “Can I do this?” That puts the thinking on the teachers side of the net. When students say, “Can I write it like this?” always respond with, “Try it and find out. We can always refine it later.”

And remember these words — slightly adapted– from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Whomsoever would be a writer must be a nonconformist.”

A Call for a Transformational Approach to Grammar Instruction

This week, in case you missed it, some of us celebrated National Grammar Day. Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t notice. Following the crowd favorite, Read Across America Day, and the commercial favorite, National Pancake Day (I’m 85 percent sure the International House of Pancakes made that one up), it is easy to understand how you may have missed it. Hopefully, we can make up for that now.

Here’s the premise I would like you to consider for the next few minutes: We need a transformational approach to teaching grammar that will make it an essential part of literacy instruction once again.

Now, I’m not suggesting our schools bring back Warner’s English Grammar and Composition, that dense little book of rules and drills that followed me through my schooling. I don’t want to go back to the HBJ Language textbooks and workbooks I used when I started teaching either.

Drill and kill grammar taught in isolation doesn’t work. Every study on the subject conducted over 30 or 40 years came to that conclusion. For years, I tried grammar mini-lessons incorporated into my writing workshop, but those lessons always seemed forced and were always too hit or miss. I never saw the returns in better edited final pieces.

I abhor Daily Oral Language just as much as grammar books. Jeff Anderson, the author of several books on effective grammar and mechanics instruction, including Mechanically Inclined and Revision Decisions, points out the flaws in DOL. This routine typically involves displaying for students an error-laden sentence and asking them to suggest the corrections. The problem with this, Anderson states, is that by showing students flawed sentences we reinforce the mistakes, not the corrections.

Anderson recommends a model I have found particularly effective. He shows students mentor sentences and invites them to notice the craft, structure and stylistic elements in the sentence. Then, he asks students draft their imitations of the mentor. Finally, he has them attempt various revisions to see how alterations change of the effectiveness of the sentence.

When you follow Anderson’s instructional model — or that of Carol Weaver who pioneered this path — you begin to see grammar not as a set of rules and restrictions, but rather as a tool for crafting pieces with a sophisticated writing voice behind them.

This is the only method I have ever employed that produced noticeable changes in the way students write. For several years, my teaching partner Lisa Sassano and I used the mentor and imitation method as the foundation of our writing instruction, and it produced remarkable improvements in the way our students wrote. I was able to convince a few other teachers to adopt out version of the Anderson method, and they produced the same result.

My only regret is that more teachers don’t teach grammar this way. These lessons only take about 10 minutes a day if they become a regular part of your instructional routine. If you are like most ELA teachers, grading essays isn’t your favorite pastime. Teachers, I often say, are the only people who get paid to read bad writing. Editors at least have the option of rejecting a piece for quality, and they can do that quickly. Sadly, teachers have to read until the very end.

When students begin to master craft, voice and style, when their stories and essays take on some authentic rhetorical sophistication, their writing pieces are no longer a chore to grade. You look forward to the work and walk away with a sense of pride in your instruction.

All this is good stuff, I hope you will see, but it isn’t the best reason for pushing a transformational approach to teaching grammar, mechanics, and craft.

Grammar is the mechanism — the metaphorically mechanical nuts and bolts — that give a piece of writing its voice. You may have come across this line from Stephen King’s On Writing: “What is writing? Telepathy, of course.” As teachers, we shouldn’t ignore the importance of that line. Writing is a means for putting thoughts onto paper, and the paper is simply a medium for conducting thoughts from the mind of the writer to the mind the reader.

Grammar plays a vital role in this process. Grammar brings clarity and coherence to writer’s thoughts and the writer’s voice. Clarity and coherence are essential for both interpersonal communication and interpersonal communication. Without grammar, we can not clearly share our thoughts, and often we can not understand the thoughts ourselves. We have a mind full of fragmented ideas, instead of a fluent inner monolog.

We need to teach grammar so our students can write and speak with abundant clarity. But we also need it so our students can think in cogent language. A sentence, a paragraph, a story, or essay must have its own internal logic as clear and functional as lines of code in a computer program. That’s what effective grammar instruction provides: logical lines of code on paper and in our minds.

Therefore, I call for a transformation in grammar instruction. We must abandon the thought that grammar is strictly rules to drill into the heads of our students. We also need to stretch beyond grammar as a writer’s toolbox for crafting clever sentence.

We need to see grammar as the vehicle for creating clear and coherent thinking for all aspects of communication, including a rational, coherent inner monolog. Our instruction needs to follow this model so we can lead our students to the highest level of reading, writing, and thinking.

Why You Should Let Writing Objectives Drive Reading Instruction (Sometimes)

I spent a good part of one summer working with a group of  clever teachers creating units of study for writing instruction. The writer’s notebook became the centerpiece for our classes, and we created notebook work that would help students develop writing muscles. We selected genres for focus, then started to collect mentor and touchstone texts. We discussed how to teach students to find craft and how to model our writing for them. The curriculum team planned assessment for both full process and on-demand writing, and chose appropriate rubrics.  Finally, we packaged all our work in dandy Understanding By Design templates.

Of course, there is always a glitch.

Throughout the curriculum project, we continued to trip over one question.  If we implement all these great ideas to teach writing, where we will find time to work on reading.

Fortunately, we weren’t stumbling around in the dark on our own. We had a consultant to lead us. Her name is Erica Denman; she trained at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and if you want to improve the writing instruction in your school, hire her.

Erica offered a simple solution to our stumbling block: Sometimes it’s a good idea to let the writing drive the reading.

Writing to improve reading isn’t exactly a new idea. Using writing to drive the reading end of the curriculum is a little more outside the box.

The concept has tremendous merit.

At the core of effective writing instruction are the mentor texts we use to learn various genres. When students study mentors, they read with specific purposes: to find the voice, to learn the craft, and to deconstruct the structure. Students engage in much higher levels of thinking than they do if when they read to just to find out what happens in the story.

From Erica Denman, I learned that teaching students to work from mentor texts teaches them a valuable method of problem-solving that they can apply to many situations. When you have a task to complete, and you don’t know how to complete it, find examples of someone who has accomplished the same sort of task before, and learn from them.

I do it all the time. I would much rather work from the picture on the box than from a set of instructions when assembling almost anything, from a grill to a lawnmower. (Although, I confess, that method doesn’t always work when putting together a machine that has to work. The guts of writing piece are more visible than the inner workings of a small, internal combustion engine.)

Teaching students to analyze and write from mentors takes writing instruction a giant step above just a set of instructions for a five-paragraph essay or a three-page short story or a ten-page research paper.

When students start to see writing tasks as a form of verbal problem-solving rather than just a chore to complete, they take a leap forward in crafting meaningful writing pieces.

They start to read and think like problem solvers. The writing itself is just a way to present their solution to an audience.

Right now, one of my high school classes is working on a literary analysis paper examining which character or characters are to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. They have the play to analyze, and they have commentaries to read. That gives them content.

I also have them reading Roger Ebert’s brilliant movie reviews available on rogerebert.com to learn voice and New York Times book reviews to learn structure.

Through this process, students learn to ask the valuable questions:

  • What is the writer doing?
  • Why is the writer this?
  • What does the writer want the reader to think here?
  • How would I do it in my writing?

Too often we fall into this pattern: we decide we want to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. We read the text, perhaps using techniques from Harvey Daniels or Kylene Beers or Cris Tovani as our pedagogy. All good stuff.

Then, we get to the end of the book and decide we need an assessment. We pick a writing topic and assign it. Eventually, we collect a finished piece, and we curse ourselves for ever making the assignment when we have to grade 50 putrid essays about Kit’s attempt to confirm to Puritan society.

Here’s a alternative approach: Decide on a writing genre — perhaps argument or analysis. Select a book or books. Then teach the students to read with the writing task in mind. That adds deeper and more authentic purpose to the reading. As your students work through The Witch of Blackbird Pond, you toss in various supplementary readings on topics like Puritans, Quakers and all sorts of witch hunts.

When your class gets to the end of the book, they examine mentor essays about the teenagers searching for identity or conformity versus rebellion. You might find good examples in NPR’s “This I Believe”  and “This American Life” collections.

Both the reading and writing improve from taking this approach.

A writing-driven genre study approach works wonders when teaching poetry, drama, short story and non-fiction. Students learn to read the genre by learning to write it.

Writing becomes more than a task; it becomes more than an assessment; it becomes more than test prep; it becomes more than filler between reading units — all stations it has held in the past.

Writing facilitates clear, analytical thinking about reading at levels reading and discussion only could never reach.

Now for the promised, mandatory disclaimer: Writing should not drive all reading instruction.

Writing has its limits.

I believe the number one rule that should drive all instruction is authenticity. We don’t always read so that we can write. Sometimes we read just to be entertained. Sometimes we read just to satisfy curiosity. Authentic purpose for reading should always be at the core of our instruction.

To accomplish all reading purposes, we need to teach students how to monitor their comprehension and how to fix it when it breaks down. Many students struggle to engage with texts, and we have a primary responsibility to teach them how to do that.

All reading and reading instruction should center on what our students need at that moment. All other goals, objectives, standards and essential questions come in second to helping our students with whatever difficulties they face at the moment.

“Why do I loathe main idea?”

Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

I received this email this morning from one the best literacy teachers I know:

“Why do I loathe main idea?”

What a great question in the age of common core instruction.

My first thought was main idea — or central idea as the CCSS calls it  — is such an overused term. I am sure there are teachers who have file drawers full of worksheets on finding the main idea and providing three supporting details. Or, as we like to say these days, “identify supporting text evidence.” I don’t think it matters whether you call them supporting details or text evidence. We could argue questions of nuance between details and evidence, but all we would really be doing is arguing jargon, not literacy.

Then, I thought a little more on the subject and wrote back,  “[finding main idea] can justify a very surface reading of the text sometimes. We’re teaching kids, ‘All you need to know is the main idea and a couple pieces of evidence.’ We aren’t digging deep.”

That’s what rung the bell on this question.

My friend responded, “You miss so much when you’re only looking for the main idea.”


I just finished thumbing through one of my all-time favorite  essay collections, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. Like any favorite book, my copy is a tattered paperback barely held together at the binding with Scotch tape. To read those essays, “to get the main idea” would be a travesty. Fulghum conveys so much through his tone and writing voice. You would miss all that. You might believe you did learn everything you need to know in kindergarten.

Would you read Tuesday’s with Morrie just deeply enough to get the main idea? Would you skim The Last Lecture, just for the key points? Get just enough from the text so you can summarize it in a properly structured paragraph with a topic sentence, five supporting sentences, and a closing sentence. Such tasks are an injustice to the literature, and to the reader.

Okay, in the name of fairness and accuracy, the CCSS says that students must analyze the development of central ideas and themes in the text.

Let’s think about that. Let’s analyze it.

Analyze is a word we educator’s love because it occupies a high ranking on Bloom’s taxonomy. The problem becomes when we try to define and apply the term. I remember once asking a group of teachers in a workshop to define the analysis. I got a lot of responses that sounded like, “Well, um, it’s when you…um…” Then a stream of gibberish and jargon spewed forth. After the session, I concluded the most common definition of analyze was: students can recall and repeat an explanation that the teacher provided in an earlier lesson.

Analysis is not a process that just happens in a student’s head because you tell them to do it. Analysis requires a protocol, a procedure, an algorithm, a model or a method. Our brains don’t come pre-programmed for analysis…or for reading comprehension at any level. We learn to analyze.

It’s vital for literacy teachers to be introspective and reflective about how we construct meaning on every level when we read. Let me ask you this question: What’s your analysis protocol for the central idea? What activates the protocol during your reading process? When you read a piece of literary non-fiction, when does the main idea light start to blink on your mental dashboard?

The room grows very quiet. A cricket chirps.

I don’t mean to be unduly facetious about this, although I find it hard to keep the sarcasm out of my tone as I write on this subject.

Fine models of analysis that builds and deepens comprehension exist. Check out Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst; Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey; Deeper Comprehension, by Kelly Gallagher; and, What Readers Really Do, by Dorothy Barnhouse and Victoria Vinton.

Teachers can model and guide students through thoughtful text analysis using models like these. From that thoughtful analysis, students will be able to explain the central ideas and support their conclusions with their deeper understanding of the text.

We must recognize that finding main idea and supporting details is a bi-product of a thoughtful comprehension process.  It should never be the entire purpose of reading. The main reading task always remains the same: comprehend fully and comprehend deeply. Comprehension is not a divisible, segmented process when it occurs in the reader’s mind. We should not chop it up for classroom use or standardized tests.

Reading is an act of exploration. The reader must enter the book with eyes wide open. Like Lewis and Clark traveling the Missouri River, the reader’s mission is to notice and catalog everything and to create a complete and accurate map of the territory. You don’t just look for the mountains. You don’t just look for the forests. You study the moss on every tree.

Like all journeys of exploration, reading is an open-ended experience. You don’t know what you will find until you see it. And you might miss if you are busy looking for something you think you have to find.

“You miss so much when you’re only looking for the main idea.”

Chasing the SKILLZ

This just doesn’t seem to want to go away. Invariably I will sit in a meeting or workshop with other teachers and administrators discussing a reading related topic: lessons, assessment, reading in the content classes, etc. I will present ideas for reading strategically and critically using Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, Cris Tovani and Kelly Gallagher as my sources for evidence and inspiration. I will quote Richard Allington, Tom Newkirk, and Russell Walsh.

“We should have students annotate their thinking with an article of the week,” I might suggest. “Then, we need teach them how to use signposts to think their way through a novel.”

Of course, I will go on to explain how those ideas work, and on a good day I might even be able to connect it all to close reading and the Common Core State Standards.

I will get some nods and a few affirmations before someone will ask:

“What about the SKILLZ? How are students going to learn the SKILLZ?”

Notice the spelling. It’s important.

When I think of reading skills, I think of decoding, phonemic awareness, and phonics. I think about the reader’s eyes and their ability to track across the page. I think of the skills necessary to recognize the words and connect them together fluently so the reader’s brain can comprehend the images, ideas and messages in the text.

Those are reading skills.

The SKILLZ my colleagues talk about are a different animal altogether. They want to know how we are going to teach kids to find the main idea, look for author’s purpose, or recognize cause and effect. The list is longer than that, but you get the idea. Sometimes they even confuse skills and SKILLZ with literary devices like plot and setting.

The reason for the confusion is obvious. For decades, educational publishers have packaged these SKILLZ in materials and disguised them as reading comprehension.

Now, before I give you the wrong idea, let me say this: readers should be able to find the main idea of a passage. They need to be able to infer the author’s purpose. They ought to be able to figure out the causes and effects of an event described in a text.

It is just that those aren’t exactly reading skills. More properly, they are post-reading skills. Those understandings are the bi-product of properly applying the actual reading skills and thinking strategies that build comprehension. I spell them out as SKILLZ  because that is how publishers mislabel them in their materials.

When we talk about cause and effect or author’s purpose, we aren’t talking about a level or type of comprehension. We are talking about a type of comprehension question.

Comprehension questions are good things. We need them for formative assessment. However, we have to understand their place. Comprehension questions can only follow attempts to build comprehension.

When my colleagues talk about the SKILLZ, what they mean is, “How are we going to teach students to answer these kinds of questions.” (Too often, that translates to, “How are we going to teach the types of questions that might end up on a standardized test?”)

Here’s the problem with centering reading instruction on the SKILLZ: you end up putting the questions in front of the understanding, rather than after the understanding where they belong.

In other words, you end up chasing comprehension rather than building it.

And too often we fail to catch what we chase.

That’s true for reading comprehension. That’s true for test scores. That’s true for our tails.