by Toni Czekanski
Thinking within, about, and beyond the text. This is what we want readers to do. Thinking within the text includes showing understanding of literal features of the text as well as decoding, fluency, monitoring, and summarizing. Thinking beyond the text is more inferential. It includes predicting, inferring, synthesizing, and connecting with texts in a variety of ways. When it comes to thinking about the text, we hope that students can think critically and analyze the writer’s crafting of the text.
We do minilessons to help our students recognize the complexity of thinking while they are reading, and we look for ways to find evidence of that thinking. Students can demonstrate their understanding through talking, drawing, or writing about their thinking in a variety of ways.
Talking about Reading:
During our minilesson and share, students talk about their thinking, sharing their ideas with us and with their classmates. We model the way readers share their thinking. As we confer with students, they have the opportunity to share on a more personal level, and we take advantage of this one-on-one time to do some focused teaching as we confer and deepen or extend the student’s thinking. Taking anecdotal notes after each conference is essential to our understanding of our students. Looking back at these notes each week can help us to understand where to go with our teaching.
If many of the students are showing evidence that they understand what we have been teaching, and can talk about their thinking, then we know we can move on. Conversely, if many show confusions or are not yet proficient in certain areas, then we know that we have to reteach, or continue teaching in order to help them understand the process. If only a few students are still confused, we might work with them in small, guided reading groups to reinforce the teaching we have done with the whole class. Of course, if there are one or two students who need to continue to work on something, we can address this during individual conferences. It is important to review conference notes on a weekly basis in order to analyze the data we are collecting, and decide on what kind of support students need.
Writing about Reading:
Once students are able to talk about their thinking, it is time to move toward writing about it. Most teachers in grades 2 – 6 begin by doing some shared writing about commonly shared texts, like interactive read alouds. First, they write a model letter, sharing their own thinking about the text and then asking the students to read it, and share what they noticed about the letter. The teacher charts a list of everything the students notice, from elements of a friendly letter like date, greeting, closing, to the content of the letter: what kind of thinking has been shared? Once this has been done successfully, the teacher and students compose letters together. This can begin with a review of the structure of a friendly letter…using the teacher’s example as a model. Students then think about the kinds of thinking they want to share in their class letter. Brainstorming a list of possible things to include in the letter is helpful…then the class can make decisions about what they would like to write in the letter itself. Taking time to decide as a group, what items are required (like book title, author, etc.) and what are optional areas to write about.
Once this has been done successfully a few times…and perhaps these class letters are shared with a neighboring class in the school, then it’s time for students to compose their own letters. Usually this happens every one or two weeks. It can happen when students finish a book, or it can happen on specific days, regardless of whether the book is finished or not…it’s the thinking about the book so far that counts. The letter is usually about a page long, depending on the student, and what they have to say. It can certainly be longer. The students turn in their letters on a regular schedule so that the teacher can read and respond to them.
Responding to Letters:
This is the part that gets tricky if there is no system to help you along. Most teachers respond to four or five letters a day, writing back about a page for each student. The writing is conversational: reader-to-reader. It’s OK if the teacher has not read the book the student is talking about. The teacher responds authentically, as a reader, modeling her own thinking, and prompting the student to dig a little deeper if necessary. This is a great way to set up a relationship with students as people who think about their reading. That is the expectation: sharing your thinking. The teacher’s response is not a litany of questions that have to be answered…there might be one or two prompts to think a little deeper, or to provide evidence for thinking…but these are posed in a conversational way rather than a “what is the answer to this question” way. The content of the students’ letters should reflect the kind of teaching that has been happening in the class. If the teacher has spent two weeks teaching about character analysis, then one would hope to see students referring to their understanding of character in their letters…along with other thinking, of course.
Setting up time for students to talk and write about what they are thinking is one way to move students forward as people who think independently about what they are reading…people who do not need prompts, but who can share what they wonder about, what they notice, and what they are thinking in a variety of ways. During reading workshop, most of the time is spent reading independently or in small groups, but once a week or so, students are given the opportunity to share their thinking as they write letters to their teacher. Writing about reading should feel like participating in a book discussion group, only through writing, not talk. Happy writing!