There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing teaching the child not the program. The skills we teach students today should be transferrable to all stories or all writing or all problems. We need to teach for transfer and help students make connections.
We used to teach the book, writing or problem
Teachers used to pick up books like The Sign of the Beaver (one of my most hated whole class texts) and think, “what lessons does this book teach?” Then they would teach the book. I made a map of main out of dough. I had to look up new vocabulary words in every chapter even if I didn’t find any new words. My classmates built log houses out of sticks and the activity list could go on and on. While these activities may have helped me understand The Sign of the Beaver, I couldn’t take those same skills and apply them to another text. When we finished that book we went on to another one and repeated the same process again with no connection to the previous book.
In writing, teachers would circle mistakes in red pen and students would correct the mistakes. Students would make the same mistakes every time and then the teacher would circle it and they would fix them. This cycle could continue indefinitely. Some kids would receive things that were circled that they didn’t even know how to fix. Worse yet, some teachers never even had their students write for an authentic audience. They just wrote in response to prompts or in other ways but never produced writing on their own. While student writing might have looked nice with all the correct capitalization and punctuation, if the student couldn’t really do it on their own did they really know how to do it?
In math we solved problem after problem with no connection between the problems. Teachers would see students make the same mistakes over and over and would teach them how to solve that specific problem. In word problems this happens especially. We teach the problem instead of teaching strategies to solve all word problems. Sarah has six pennies and then she got five more. How many does she have now? Ugh… actually most teachers might go through a template that doesn’t allow for student thinking instead of teaching them comprehension skills. A lot of math teaching still looks like this hilarious Kid Snippets video.
What's the Problem?
The problem with taking a book like The Sign of the Beaver and pulling out all the lessons kids could learn in that specific book or circling all the mistakes a child makes on one specific writing assignment or telling the child how to solve one specific math problem is that there is no transfer. The child cannot walk away from that book or writing assignment or math problem and take what they’ve learned and apply it to their future learning.
When teaching reading, we want to teach skills that all readers can use in any book.
In writing, we want to teacher the writer skills that they can apply to any writing piece.
In math, we want to teach mathematicians strategies they can take to the next problem.
When we begin to teach the CHILD instead of the book or writing or problem we are creating independent learners. That child can take the knowledge they’ve learned and apply it to the next time they read or write or solve a problem. They have learned transferrable skills.
They can begin to see that reading skills apply to all books not just to certain ones. Nonfiction readers do the same thing regardless of text. Fantasy readers use the same strategies regardless of text. Historical fiction readers need a certain set of skills regardless of text. Decoding skills and learning new words can be the same in every text.
In writing if we correct every single mistake then they child can’t become a better writer. If this week you teach that writers use punctuation to help guide the reader. Then that child can focus in on punctuation. Punctuation might not be in every child’s zone of proximal development. If it isn’t in their ZPD then don’t waste time on it. Look for the skills that they do need. A child can learn that regardless of genre all writers find a way to draw in their audience.
In math they can see that mathematicians are always making connections. Math is built upon reasoning and relationships. Strategies you use in addition can be used in subtraction and multiplication and fractions and so many other things! The different operations and problem types don’t live in a silo and mathematicians know how to connect different math concepts.
What to do Instead
First of all, we shouldn’t be teaching whole class novels anymore… a good topic for a new changing our thinking post. For more on best practice in Literacy join me on Tuesdays and check out the Literacy Instruction tab at the top of the page.
Think about the skills each reader needs. Books can teach a wide variety of skills. In one Bailey School Kids book I can teach about the mystery genre and how readers try to solve mysteries along with the characters. I can teach decoding skills as kids discover words they don’t know. I can teach fluency skills and encourage readers to let their voice reflect the tone of the story. I can teach that readers reread when things don’t make sense. I can teach that readers of a series learn about the characters and pay attention to their traits. I can teach that readers can connect the previous chapter to the current chapter. I could go on and on.
Switch your thinking. Instead of what skills can this book teach? Think, what skills does this reader need? Not every reader needs the same skills and most books can teach the reader the skills they need.
Teachers should no longer be editors in the writing classroom… another topic for a changing our thinking!
As you watch your writers work, notice their mistakes. Notice the skills that they have independently mastered and compliment them on those skills. Notice the skills that they use correctly most of the time but still make errors on from time to time. Notice the skills that they are beginning to correct on their own but don’t do it frequently. Notice the errors that they make all the time but don’t correct at all. Notice everything they do. Then decide what to teach.
When deciding what to teach not all writers will need the same skills. If a child is able to do something on their own, they don’t need to be taught that skill. If a child makes errors but never corrects them, this skill might not be in their zone of proximal development yet. They might not be ready for it yet. Teach in to the mistakes that they are beginning to correct on their own but don’t have down yet. Become their coach and teach them those skills.
Writers use punctuation to guide their reader. Writers use capital letters at the start of a sentence. Writers break their writing into paragraphs to organize their ideas better and make their writing easier to read. Writers use strategies to spell words correctly. These are all teaching points that can be applied to any piece of writing.
Switch your thinking. Instead of, what is this writer doing wrong? Think, what skills does this writer almost have? What can I teach them today that they can learn to do independently and apply to the next piece of writing?
Oh, math. So often in math we teach and prompt kids in the easiest way for them to get the answer. Isn’t math just answer getting? If you haven’t watched this video about answer getting in math then take a moment to do so. Math is not all about answer getting. When we don’t teach for reasoning and understanding we often teach for answer getting.
Instead of teaching the specific problem ask yourself what is a skill this mathematician could apply to every problem they encounter. Maybe they need to know that mathematicians struggle but they keep going when it is hard. Mathematicians construct arguments to explain their reasoning. Mathematicians create a model to try to solve an unknown problem. Mathematicians use different strategies to solve problems.
Switch your thinking. Instead of, how can this student get the answer? Think, what skills does this mathematician need? What skills could I teach them today that they can apply to future problems as well.
What I've Learned
Teaching for transfer has completely changed my teaching. I now reflect a lot of each child’s zone of proximal development and how to teach for independence. When I think about transfer it means that the child can do the skill without you and can bring this knowledge with them to any problem, book, experiment, or whatever.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below! I would love to hear about your journey in teaching for transfer and answer any questions you may have.
There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing young readers using pictures in stories as they read.
What We Used to Think
Checking the pictures in stories used to be seen as almost cheating when reading the stories. I remember as a child thinking that looking at the pictures was meant for after reading the words. Recently a parent was in my classroom reading a story but refused to show students the pictures saying they would only pay attention to the pictures and not the words. Not only were the kids disappointed they missed an opportunity to use the pictures to help them build an understanding of the text as the story was read aloud.
Pictures are in texts for a reason. They support the reader to make meaning as they work through a text. To not allow a student access to pictures is to inhibit their understanding of the text. Let’s explore this shift in thinking even further.
Text Levels and Pictures
When a child begins to read at lower levels the entire story is in the picture. If the line of print says The car is blue, on the page is a picture of a blue car. The next page says the car is orange and a picture of an orange car is on the page. This is because children at this level need the illustration to support them as readers. To not have the illustration would mean that they can’t decode the text.
As children move up in levels the picture support within text gradually fades away. As students know more and more words they use the pictures for decoding less and less. Sometimes authors may use the illustrations to add in bits of the stories that aren’t being told through the words. Here are a few examples of texts at different levels and a description of the picture support at that level.
At a level A kids are just beginning to develop their reading skills. They are learning that books are read from left to right. They are learning that there is a relationship between sounds and letters. You’ll notice that text in a level A is limited. It consists of one line of print that a student would read using the support of their finger moving from word to word. These books often follow a pattern. In the book above the text follows the “Here is the ____” pattern as the students read about making this rabbit craft. You’ll notice that the words on the page match the picture exactly. Level A provides simple text and the narrative is completely told within the pictures. It is at this beginning level that readers are prompted to check the picture when they get stuck. All information included in the text is included in the illustrations.
At a level D kids are finding more lines on a page than they were in previous levels. These readers use the pictures to attach meaning to the story and the picture still provides a high level of support to the story. You’ll notice that possible unknown words such as beach or water can be determined using support from the picture and perhaps initial letter sound. Students read a level D at the end of Kindergarten/beginning of first grade.
Notice how the demand of the reader has shifted from an D to a H. We expect kids to exit grade 1 around a level I/J. Within that first grade year the demands within the text levels change quite drastically. After level E the high level of picture support for a text begins to shift. In a level H there is moderate picture support. The story is mostly told through the text but the pictures help support readers and they decode a text. If a reader at a level H isn’t sure about the word climbed in the last line they can still use the picture to help their understanding. If they aren’t sure about the word stick, there isn’t much picture support to help in the decoding of that word.
In a level K the use of pictures begins to shift. Now readers have many decoding strategies and are able to decode a high number of words with high accuracy. In a level K the text will sometimes demand that the reader search for information in the pictures or graphics. Readers who are still relying heavily on picture clues to decode words often get stuck at a level K because of the limited picture support. Prior to this level many other decoding strategies need to be taught to gradually release the reader from relying solely on picture support. A typical student will approach a level K text about half way through second grade. Notice how the pictures are still important and still provide support however the type of support provided has shifted.
At approximately a level N the use of pictures in stories shifts again. Now there is little to no picture support for readers as they work through the text. This picture provides a bit of context. I see two people on a beach. I can tell that it is probably cold out and they are looking at something dirty. If you read the text on this page you will find out a lot more details. The pictures don’t provide support for decoding anymore and they don’t provide additional information to add on to the text. Readers at this level are now reliant on the text and the illustrations are there for enjoyment. Readers reach a level N at the beginning of grade 3.
As you can see, pictures in stories help the reader build meaning or make sense of a story. If we don’t allow students access to pictures then we are taking away an essential coding system that helps readers work through a text. If students aren’t using the pictures as they read this should be a teaching point that is worked on. Text levels gradually release responsibility to the reader similar to the entire balanced literacy framework. We don’t need and shouldn’t cover up pictures as students work to read texts.
Three Coding Systems- M, S, V
As readers work through text they use three coding systems: meaning, structure, and visual.
Meaning- Does this make sense?
Structure- Does this sound right?
Visual- Does this look right?
We want readers to be cross-checking and using all systems of coding but today we’re focused on meaning. When students are using meaning they are connecting the words in the text, noticing relationships and putting the story together. Illustrations in a text are a source of meaning as a reader decodes the text.
When a child makes meaning of a text they are not only using the words and the illustrations, they also draw upon other sources such as background knowledge and life experiences, sense of how a story works, experiences with books and language.
These meaning cues help readers to make sense of the text as they work through it. Students can use meaning to notice errors in a story when the plot no longer makes sense. They can make connections to their life and what they know using meaning. It helps them to hold the sense of story as they work through page after page of text. Meaning helps readers understand the main ideas in a text and the ideas that support those ideas. It helps them to read with fluency and expression. It even helps them swap out words for words that still make sense (mom for mother). Meaning is essential for a reader.
Please check out this post all about using prompts with children.
As readers we constantly ask ourselves does this make sense? as we move through stories. We want our students to do the same. To do so we prompt our students for these missing skills. This is, of course, after we have already taught and modeled the prompt for them. To learn more about prompting please check out this post. Some prompts for meaning could be
-Did that make sense?
-Look at the pictures.
-What happened in the story when ______?
-What do you think it might be
-Can you reread this?
Additional Professional Reading
The Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum has been my guide for all things literacy for the past 7 years. This year I finally got the new updated version and I could not love it more.
I know that it may seem costly but you will get your money’s worth out of it. Included in the text are sections about the various components of a balanced literacy framework, the expectations at each grade level, as well as a detailed description of each guided reading text level. These descriptions help me determine how to problem solve points of error amongst students, predict possible areas of struggle and extend the learning within each level. It is worth the investment! There isn’t a single day of teaching that I don’t reference it at least once.
A preview can be found at the Heinemann link below.
Changing Our Thinking
I hope this small shift in thinking is helpful in your classroom!
Leave a comment below about your shift in thinking, any questions you might have, and how this is working for you within the classroom.