Literacy Lines

The Keys to Literacy Blog

Teach them how to think deep

by Becky DeSmith | 1 | 1 Comment

One of the professional books I am reading is entitled, Make Just One Change.  Authors Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana make a strong case for the impact of putting question generation into the hands of students, rather than teachers.

“…the ability to ask questions …leads to new ideas, new inventions, and better solutions.  Learning how to ask questions also leads to improved learning outcomes, greater student engagement, and more ownership of the learning process.”  (pg.ix)

Who can argue with this?  Research shows that if you ask yourself questions while you read, you better comprehend.  This makes great sense; you are interacting enough with the text to be curious and to ask questions.  This whole issue brings me back to my own classroom many years ago, and forward to what I now teach in my job at Keys to Literacy.

Flashback to 1980 something (ok, you can now do the math and determine how young I am NOT…). I am teaching sixth grade process reading.  My 130 students are reading individual texts and responding in a very structured way in reading journals.  Mary (last name sealed to protect the innocent) is dutifully completing the weekly summary, reaction and vocabulary components of her journal.  Here is her typical journal entry:

“Dear Ms. De, This week in The Outsiders, Dally died.”  She proceeds to give me a pretty decent summary of the character’s death.  Then her reaction to the summary:  “I am sad.”  She may have even drawn a little sad face in her journal.  My red pen went into overdrive.

“MARY, YOU ARE NOT THINKING DEEP!  This is superficial thinking.  We are ALL sad.  You need to get INSIDE characters and events in your reactions!”  I recorded a C- in my gradebook next to Mary’s name. Man, am I a good teacher.

Well, Mary took that YOU ARE NOT THINKING DEEP comment for about five weeks. It was October and I handed back the journals on Monday morning.  She glanced at yet another C- and began to sob – really sob with shoulders heaving back and forth.  Caring teacher that I was, I went to her.  “Mary, what is the matter?” Did someone other than Dally die, I wondered?

“I…. must….be….stupid!” she sobbed.  “I don’t know how to THINK DEEP!”

I teared up.  Clearly, I was destroying this child entrusted to me.  And, by the way, my trusty red pen had written a good many “YOU ARE NOT THINKING DEEP!” comments in other journals.

That was the day I taught my students to ask their own questions. I removed all of the C- grades from ALL of my students’ journals and we started over. By the way, I also removed all red pens from my arsenal.  I taught my students about Benjamin Bloom and his cognitive taxonomy. I TAUGHT them how to think deep.  And I never looked back.  When my students started to generate their own questions along the six levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, they expressed reading comprehension like never before.  Students with special needs came alive.  They had some trouble reading, but they sure could think, and I was finally acknowledging it in the gradebook.

I love my job.  Every time I do workshops in The Key Comprehension Routine, I plead with teachers to allow their students to ask the questions.  I do my best to show them how to do it.  And I know that, if teachers made JUST THIS ONE CHANGE, learners would so benefit.

Becky DeSmith

Becky DeSmith Becky joined Keys to Literacy in 2007 and has been a literacy educator for over 35 years. She has taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and been involved in many school and district-wide initiatives that address core literacy issues. She has been recognized as a Teacher of the Year by the International Reading Association.

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1 Comment

  1. Judy Gould

    I asked myself, as I was reading your blog, How can I become Becky DeSmith’s next door neighbor?. I would be so much smarter if the one thing I changed was my address.

    Seriously, I love that by teaching the taxonomy (I, We, You) we gradually release the ownership and empower our students to own the READING. Perhaps we should explain that if what you are reading doesn’t give your brain any questions to ask… then you might select a different text, or genre.

    In Kindergarten we actually teach, questions and comments, after shared reading, that way we don’t have to cringe so deeply when a presenter says, “Does anyone have any questions?”. They know the difference. It takes TIME, but its time well spent.



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