TAFFY E. RAPHAEL
Taffy E. Raphael: Taffy E. Raphael, Oakland University.
If you think about um—well first of all, there’s probably a difference in early literacy instruction that has to do with essentially learning the code of the language. So when people talk about early literacy instruction, a lot of people don’t really mean the full range of literacy experiences. They’re really using that as code for teaching um—teaching the code. And—and teaching the code can also be code for simply teaching phonics. So the political environment today means that we have far more loaded terms and it’s important not to just look at the surface. The way I think of early literacy instruction, what I think of that as focusing on is introducing young children to the idea of written language. So that would, of course, include the code. That would be a piece of it, but it would also include things like concepts about print, um how books are ordered and organized, the idea that people write books, that illustrations carry meaning as well as print, that in good books illustrations and print work together. So those are a lot of concepts that older kids have down. You’re—you’re not talking about that. So full life-long literacy is still going to in—I would expect students to learn things like different juandras. So in early literacy the different juandras might be things like knowing the difference between a story that’s suppose to based on truth, something that really happened versus a story that’s make-believe. Um, a story that is trying to teach you something or a book that um is a collection of information versus a storybook. Those kinds of things are juandra, but you also teach that at the upper elementary levels, the middle school levels, high school, college. It’s just the content in what gets included in that differs according to age level. So your question can actually mean a couple of different things. “What is early literacy instruction” can mean um what’s the content of the life-long curriculum that would be reflected in an early program. But today you—when somebody asks that question it also can mean how do you—where do you stand politically in terms of what needs to be the content of the literacy curriculum for young children and do you think the primary emphasis is teach the code first and the rest follows or the primary emphasis is on helping children understand what literacy involves, its connection to their own language, their own experiences, their home and community activities that involve print, and then how do you um introduce information about the code in light of that background knowledge. And—and there are a lot of different positions in the field right now so you hear a lot about um early literacy instruction that is—it’s a much more complicated question today then it was when I first started teaching, for example. We just taught the code, didn’t even worry about anything else and then um later we learned how much more complex it was then now there’s a kind of a search for some quicker answers that we have more control over. So you see different political changes. It’s meant different things over different times.
Um, well as—as an adult, think about the way literacy plays out in your life. And for those of us that are fortunate to um engage in literacy for pleasure and the like, we can identify all kinds of—of skills that we began using as a very young child and continue using today. So if you think about when you read a book, it’s almost distracting if you pay a lot of attention to sounding out the words. Not almost, it is distracting. You almost feel yourself like losing the sort of immersion in the book if your paying attention to the words and how they work. So one of the um sort of aspects of life-long literacy has to do with that idea of losing yourself in the world of the book. Now to do that, that involves a lot of different skills. You learn how to think about um your own experiences in light of the story that you’re reading and—and look for connections. How do your experiences influence the way you interpret or think about the book, but how does reading the book change the way you think about your own life? So there’s that kind of connection in both directions that you want to see children doing that. If they’re very young—if they’re eight years old and listening to the story about Shilo where the little boy has to make a decision about whether to save this dog that um is being abused but lie to his parents. I mean that presents a moral dilemma that the eight year old you’d like to see engage with that book in terms of thinking about how the experiences that Marty, the little boy in the story—what the little boy in the story is experiencing, how that might help them think about how they might deal with complex dilemmas in their own life. I do that when I read. My graduate students do that in the books that they read, undergraduates. I mean it’s a life-long skill. So that’s one example of what I mean by kind of a—a life-long skill. In order to do that, I know how to sound out words, I know how to par sentences, I know how to read punctuation, all of those things are just part of the repartra of what I’m doing, but I don’t look at reading as doing that. Those are simply tools that help me actually engage in life-long literacy. When I was trying to decide which dog I was going to buy and had decided not to go to the pound but to buy a breed—a particular breed of dog, I used all kinds of text resources and Internet resources and things to um read critically, make decisions about what the different um authors—how the different authors were trying to convey information and how much credibility to give different information. If I’m reading about um a particular breed on the web site of the breeders, those people have a different agenda then somebody’s who’s written an encyclopedia about dogs or something like that. So whether it’s sort of silly little day-to-day decisions, if you’re making a decision about what car you need to buy, you’re evaluating information, you’re drawing on multiple sources of information. That’s something we also want young children to do in school. For 2nd graders it might—or let me use a kindergarten example. One of the students that I have in one of my classes now has done a really interesting unit with five year olds introducing them to the idea of um literature and literature touching their own lives ao—and how ideas from literature connect across books. So she was introducing the idea of innertextual connections. That’s a very complex idea. She used three different books um about “The Rainbow Fish” and then a couple of videos from “The Rainbow Fish” TV program. All of the books had to do with ways in which “The Rainbow Fish” came to learn about friendship and came to act as a friend. So these little five year olds were involved in listening to these stories, making connection to their own lives, making connections between the different books they were reading, comparing what was going on in the books they—or not reading, listening to—comparing what they were learning from the books to how they um—what they got from the videotape. What did the people in the movie—or the fish in the movie, how did they compare to the way the fish acted in the book? I mean those were incredibly complex skills that I would argue are part of early literacy instruction that involve them engaging with print and other media in kind of critically analytical ways even though they don’t have the code knowledge yet to do more then recognize that “Rainbow Fish” begins with ‘r’ or um the letter ‘f’ is the same letter that’s in my name, which is Francis. I mean, so the—the idea of life-long skills, if you look across the grade levels and ages of readers in the like, I don’t actually take—I don’t actually look at the early literacy curriculum as being substantially different in categories from what happens with older—old readers. I think it’s life-long process. But I look at the content of what gets included within those areas as being hugely different if it’s a five year old, a seven year old, an adult. But those same ideas, I teach my—the teachers that I work with um when we teach and talk about different ways of responding, I mean I taught them how to think about a poem in terms of the more structural analytic way the poem was written. What do you learn about the author from reading this poem? How does this poem touch your life? That’s a way of teaching response that you would assume adults already know and yet, unless you’re a literature major, unless you’ve really thought about that, you—a lot of avid readers don’t think about different ways of responding to literature and push themselves to try to do that with the same text. So um that would be an example of a skill somebody might think, “Oh, that would be taught young—for younger children. I’d never even teach that to an older group.” And the innertextual things are things that are often are thought of as “Well, that’s something for older readers. You would never introduce that to five year olds.” So it’s a—again, it gets back to that idea of how complex the whole thing is because in—when things are very complex and it feels very chaotic and you have a lot of need, there’s this incredible need to search for something that’s uh—you can control. That seems like a real simple solution. The fact is literacy is so complex that it’s understanding the complexity that’s really important. And I know that kind of got us off a little bit but it’s the idea of the—the life-long activities begin at a very young age but those life-long activities also means instruction doesn’t stop at 8, 10, 12, or high school, or college. That it’s a life-long process from either end.
A lot of the teachers that um I’ve encountered, particularly content area teachers, really struggle with the idea of—well, it—it plays out in two ways. One of the ideas is “I teach science, math,” plug in whatever you want. “I’m not a reading teacher.” So that creates some um interesting separations that I don’t think are particularly useful. The other sort of um way of talking or articulating the problem that content area teachers have is that um—well actually, let me just stop and start over again. The—the issue for many content area teachers is that they don’t feel skilled in how to be able to teach reading and they feel that when the students get to their classes, their job is to teach their content area and not to teach children how to read. Well there’s sort of two issues there. On the one hand I think there—there’s a legitimate um position to say, “Look, I don’t have the background. I don’t know what to do to—to help these kids learn access to the code, learn how to answer comprehension questions and the like.” But the other issue that I think is probably more relevant is there are things about the discipline that they’re teaching that involve particular ways of reading, analyzing, responding to, making sense of text that actually it’s the science teacher that’s able to teach that not the reading teacher. And—or—or in some ways is—is more skilled at being able to teach that. So the—how uh—how a lawyer reads a legal brief is a very different way of reading then how um a literary critic reads a piece of literature or how um I might pick up and read a poem for pleasure. They involve very different ways of understanding the history of the discipline, the position of the text that’s being read within that discipline. Whether or not the child has access to the print independently, in other words, can sit down and pick up that book and read it or not, is really largely irrelevant to the science teacher because the literacy skills—the scienc—and I’m not trying to pick on science but as a discipline science is a very complex dis—discipline that involves biology, sociology, you know, all—a lot of different fields and all in science. Those are philosophically um based. They’re based in scientific study. They’re contested within the field. So the idea of how—what a science teacher has to teach the—the child in the classroom about literacy may mean that the—that whether or not—even child—children who are very skilled at decoding print will still need literacy instruction from the science teacher, from the mathematics teachers, from the history teachers because it’s a way of reading or—or entering the discipline. So that being said—it—this is kind of a long answer but the content area teacher really needs to be able to work with the curriculum specialist in the school that’s just—that’s there to help the child learn to read. But—but that’s a special situation. The every single day situation is those content-area teachers have to think about the literate knowledge or the knowledge about literacy that they have that they use to make sense of text. How are those text organized? Um, what different kinds of knowledge within the field are they designed to present? How do they interrelate? How do—who—who creates them and for what purposes? That’s knowledge that all the students need to have even if they’re very avid readers of literature, novels, fiction, comic books or whatever. So there’s disciplinary ways of reading within the disciplines that I don’t think we’ve done as a field a particularly good job of helping the science teacher, the math teacher, the history teacher understand that there’s tremendous literacy knowledge that they have that they’re in the best position to teach. So that’s a different issue then how to work with a remedial youngster. The connection there is maybe they’re reading aloud to kids. Maybe they’re having the kids buddy read. It doesn’t matter. What they still need to do is teach. They have to provide access to the text but they still have to teach about how to make sense of the—the structure and the organization and the substance of the discipline that they’re working with.
Balance is an interesting term today um and a lot of people are pushing the idea of balanced instruction and it’s a term um—actually I saw David Lee and I’m sure he talked about it but um—but—and so let me start over again. (Interruption) But the um (interruption) OK. The question um that I think faces a lot of us today, you hear a lot of questions being asked, “What is balanced literacy instruction? How do you do it in a classroom? What’s included with it and the like?” And the term balance is actually an interesting one because it’s being appropriated by virtually very single position within the field. So one interpretation of balance literacy instruction is um you basically have a phonics program but um—and it’s a really restricted code emphasis. You learn the—the sounds and the symbols and people that believe in that I think mean well. They feel that all the other stuff will come if you know the code. That isn’t my position so that’s important for you to know. But in—in—in taking that position they assume that what needs to be balanced then is in learning the code you need to be exposed to some literature and stuff like that. So bring in some literature, read to the kids. Um, if you’re reading a book like “Smokey Night,” look for blends or something like that. Now—now that would be called—so that would be like the very conservative sort of phonics code teaching positions view of balance. So yeah, all that other stuff needs to get there but this is what really matters. Now the other extreme and that’s usually characterized as the whole language group, which I also don’t feel like I’m apart of, you get the um argument that “Well we—we have a really balanced program” because you’re—you’re using literature, you’ve got good instruction, you’re bringing in oral and written language. All of those different things are there and “We’ll throw in a little code instruction. That will balance it out.” The—the work that I’ve done with David Pearson, what we’ve tried to stake out is what David calls the radical middle and it’s a—it’s a very hard position because you’re basically criticized from both sides. So it—and—and you’re criticized for being um to—too much looking for reconciliation. You’re not really arguing for what you need but—but in the work I’ve done with him, what I think balance ends up requiring is a number of different levels. So you have balance within the curriculum and—and the way I’ve laid out balance and the curriculum is I think of it in terms of you need to understand all the different strategies and skills related to comprehension, how to make sense of text. You need balance in terms of composition. You need to be able to use writing as a tool, engage in the process, be able to write spontaneously in response to ideas, text, or—or um just assignments or whatever. Um, because the substance of the literature—literacy curriculum is literature—I mean that’s—that’s what you’re learning to have access to is this written history of the human experience, you need to know about the text. So there’s a lot of knowledge about how these texts are organized and structured, um literary elements and the like, and how to respond to literature. And it—you also need knowledge of the language convention. So those conventions would include how the consistency in the sound/symbol relationships, how you use that knowledge. We have a syntactic system that lets you predict order of sentences. You need knowledge about that. You need knowledge about conventions for interacting and how—how you as a person would interact with somebody else around text. So the idea of balance to me says within each of those areas, “Have you balanced across the content and across those four areas have you balanced those ar—those different aspects of literacy so that they all serve this overall goal of ownership of the curriculum?” That ultimately the whole idea is that each reader and writer that you’re teaching should come to understand and use all of these different knowledge basis skills tools to meet his or her own goals. So the—the balance comes from the different curricular areas you pick, the content within that, the kind of access you provide to different kinds of text. So a balance between literature and informational text, a balance between um—particularly with all the struggling readers, second language learners and the like. Um, you need to balance opportunity to kind of practice the skills learned with text that they can read but that are often appropriate for students far younger then themselves with access to text through reading to them and—and whatever other ability—listening centers and the like that are at their age level so that they’re engaged in the kind of higher order critical thinking that they’re more able peers are dealing with every single day. So—so balance has a lot of different meanings to me. It has the curricular meaning, the kind of text that you’re reading meaning, the access to reading level appropriate and age level appropriate texts that are important. Um, so like early literacy instruction it—it’s a very loaded term that’s being used to mean different things by different people. Um, ultimately to me it comes down to thinking about balancing curriculum, balancing text, and balancing opportunity to engage with texts that you can read and texts that you may not be able to read but that are at their—your age level and you need access to those through read alouds or other ways but then to be expected to interact with those texts in the same way that students who had read it for themselves are asked to interact with them.
A couple of different things occur to me when I think about teachers entering the profession and coming to understand the reading debates about—about—primarily about early literacy instruction. One is that um in our attempt to um educate teachers, we focus a lot on the management of classrooms in the curricular content. I don’t think it’s a field we’ve done a very good job or very thorough job of—of bringing new teachers into the field with an understanding that—that this like any other field is a political contested one. And it’s probably more politically contested then other professions because as a society every single citizen in our society has at least 8 to 16 years of experience in school. Has learned to read under circumstances that were either very successful for them and they feel like, “Well that worked for me, it should work for everyone,” or had very horrible experiences with schooling and are passionate about not wanting to see children have particular experiences or maybe are afraid of schooling and—and didn’t have good experiences in school. This is particularly the case with um students who struggle whose parents maybe struggled in school and don’t feel comfortable going to school. So I think as a field we haven’t done a very good job of helping new teachers understand that there are a lot of really good reasons why the field is a politically charged one. It’s also subject to public funding so that all the texts and materials that are adopted the public taxpayers feel that they have the right to make decisions about how their money is being spent. And there’s also, I think, a trend that most people would agree with of devaluing teachers, their knowledge base, schools of education and the like. So there’s a—a—and—and I look at the median how teachers have been characterized and I don’t think that they’ve done us any favors and I don’t think as a field we’ve been particularly articulate about what we do know. We know a tremendous amount, the field hasn’t particularly—the public doesn’t respect what we know. We’re expected to take on an ordinate challenge of making—especially um with the new mandates from uh the last oh 8—8 years, that all children will learn to read by 3rd grade and not simply at a minimal level but become critical readers. That means that we don’t have an option to say, “Well, we’re going to only pick the best and the brightest of all people to go into teaching.” Teaching is one of the poorest paid fields; it has among the least respect of anybody as a profession in the country. It’s largely been something that—that was assumed women taught. It was treated as glorified babysitting for many, many years. The respect for the knowledge base hasn’t been there so that when you look at—at attracting people into teaching we already are up against one challenge. Within the field then, helping teachers understand how contested it is without at the same time making it look like this field doesn’t know what they’re talking about is really an interesting challenge. No one would look at scientists and say, “Oh, my gosh. They’re debating point ‘a’, point ‘y’. They don’t know what in the world they’re doing.” We look at scientists and we marvel at the knowledge that comes out of the debate. So—so there’s this very frustrating situation where our field is held up to a level of scrutiny around very um thoughtful uh inquiry and debate within the field that gets then portrayed as—“They don’t—They just don’t have the answers.” Well there aren’t any easy answers. We want easy answers at the general public because we want to have this sense that, “You know, if you just do ‘x’, we will get all of our kids able to read.” Well, the hour in a half or two hours we spend a day in school isn’t sufficient to bring all children into literacy. We need systems, solutions that involve families, communities, teachers, um specialists in all different fields. We need to recognize the literacy that students bring and that there is a pretty wide world of literacy that doesn’t map directly on to the literacy experiences of white, middle class children, which is what the literacy programs tend to be built around. So, you know, in terms of thinking about what it is that um—that—your original question was really about “What about the debates and how do we bring them into it?” It’s a hard question to answer because the debates aren’t debates about beginning reading or about reading. The debates really are symptomatic of much deeper issues that have to do with who controls the curriculum, how much should my child’s experiences mirror what I experienced in school? How do we handle and how do we re—respond to children who come to school with different literacy experiences, different language, different needs for literacy, different values for literacy then what we might have? If you look at our teaching force we have a largely female, monolingual, working to middle-class um teaching force that we assume is not at all diverse and yet—and so we don’t look at diversity within the teaching population even where it exists. These teachers often are working with students very different from themselves. All—there’s just a lot of um confusion. I—I mean my answer right now I think is very wondering. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. It’s very complicated to be able to respond to that.
I think—let me—yeah, actually that was a point I wanted to make. I think in the whole political area that one of the things and some of the issues I was just raising, the point I was raising there was actually that understanding the field of literacy as a highly political, social, and cultural area is something we haven’t done a very good job of conveying to teachers. So one thing we need to do is help teachers understand the nature of the field they’re getting into. The second thing I think we really need to have our teachers understand in light of um—of the balanced curriculum that we were talking about is that we only have in the reading curriculum maybe an hour to an hour in a half, depending on the grade level, to teach reading. So in most fields when you learn new—new things—um in medicine as we’ve learned new treatments and learned new ways of diagnosing and learn new ways of patient/doctor interactions and things, we add to the knowledge base. In science we add to the knowledge base. And this cumulative knowledge base allows us to um sort of recognize that we’ve learned a lot and now we know even more. In reading, I think because we have this—this relatively limited time, as we learn new things that matter in the curriculum—so where we thought we only needed to teach the code but then we also discovered comprehension, what ended up happening was comprehension then got pitted against the code as if we could make a choice. And then later as literature became more important, it wasn’t like we thought “Oh, my gosh. Not only is decoding and comprehensions really important but we need to think about literature and text. Where do we do this in the curriculum?” We again pitted it against comprehension. Now we’ve got a problem where we’re trying to pit comprehension, literature, um writing against like one teeny, tiny part of phonics. So that the—understanding the debate involves understanding why we’re involved in this debate, both the search for simple solutions, the lack of understanding of the political nature of the field itself, the—the cultural nature of literacy as a cultural practice. And then the limited curriculum forces us to make choices about what we’re going to teach that’s fairly arbitrary. And so instead of expanding the curricular time and recognizing it’s foundational for everything else, it’s treated as sort of a school subject area that, “OK, well now that you know all these things, just cut something else out.” So it forces us into very artificial choices and somewhat arbitrary choices that then we move back to try to defend. And then the last piece of—of understanding the debates is every single professional field that’s engaged in research has debates about practices. What’s happened in reading is the—the debates within our field turn into media stories of, you know, what you read “The Reading Wars” and things. Now people are passionate about their beliefs but I want that in a researcher. I want a researcher that firmly believes in a particular area to be in their studying and—and then passionately making the case because that’s how new knowledge develops. But in reading we’re not aloud that because it uh translates immediately into practices and in our search for a—a quick answer that’s going to solve this very serious problem, we end up jumping on band wag—band wagons and—and all of the sorts of political things that we see playing out now are all traceable back to the way research is looked at, the kind of arguments about balance, the limited curriculum, the lack of teachers entering a field knowing and understanding the full political ar—area of the field. Reading isn’t just teaching sounds—“That’s all you have to do”—or using the right books. You know, there’s this very complex way of thinking about the whole field.
Um, several years ago I became interested in the idea of what are some ways of helping children understand why they’re learning to read and write. And this was in the um late 80’s, early 90’s. In fact, a number of us were looking at this and not working together but different people were interested in the—in this kind of general question of “How do we make the—the reading experiences of children and school parallel the reading experiences of the real world?” So, for example, um if I read a book that I really, really like—and I’m sure that you’ve done that to—you think, “Ooh, it would be really fun to have somebody else read it.” So you give them the book or you um tell them where they can get it or something. Then they read the book and they might call you and say, “Oh, I read it. It was great.” We then never turn to them and say, “Oh, I’m—I’m so glad you read it. Tell me, who was the main character? What happened first?” You know. And yet if you think about schooling, that’s what conversations are like. So what I was really interesting in was taking that on as a major challenge. How do we create conversational activity within classrooms around books that parallel the kind of conversations you would really have about books? But in doing that, how do we do that without throwing out all of what I believe to be important about instruction? That—I don’t think it’s sufficient to give kids really good books, create these wonderful opportunities for them to talk about it and then because of how motivating that is, that they’ll end up learning how to read. So what—what “Book Club” is, is actually a couple different thing, like everything else I’ve said. “Book Club” is a reading program and the reading program has within it four components. It has—it’s all centered around the student-led discussion groups. And those are the book clubs from which the program took its name. Those student-led disuss—discussion groups that it’s centered around—what we do is we build the literacy curriculum around—using language that help children understand that the reason they’re engaging in this literacy curriculum is because its going to help them participate in the book clubs more and more successfully. And they love being in these book clubs. They love the chance to interact around ideas in books. And one of the things that um—there are many good things that have come out of it, but one of the things we do find is children um bring incredible insights to these books that are often different then what we as teachers might have set up if we were simply asking comprehension questions. Yet they’re on target, they build from their own lives, they connect to other texts. When they’re confused they draw on each other for information. And yet as a teacher because of the way the program’s set up—because of the way we go around and we can observe the book clubs and—and listen to what’s being said, it also gives us a window. As the kids go public with their questions of each other and they’re thinking about books, it gives us a tremendous window into what they were thinking, what was going on cognitively with them or affectively with them as they were reading the book, which then informs our own instruction. So um in terms of what have we learned from the “Book Club” work we—in the “Book Club” program we’ve learned that these different areas, the student-led discussion groups of the book clubs, um the writing component which involves both the reading log kind of writing—writing in response to the books their using to help get ready for the “Book Club’ discussion, as well as the more sustained writing. Like at the end of the unit—if you’ve done a unit that was thematically oriented to one of out units, for example, is called um “Stories of um—Family Stories.” And it’s looking—it builds from stories of self—kind of autobiography, to family stories and then to stories of culture. So that’s a yearlong theme. In the “Family Stories” unit, one of the writings that the kids did was involved—creating interview questions and interviewing somebody from their grandparents’ generation or from the parents’ generation about the grandparent’s generation. Then they wrote them um interview up as a—and it was interviewing them to find out a family story. Then they wrote the family story, they rehearsed it, they—it was um a story built around an artifact. They came to class with the artifact, did an oral presentation. So that would be a component that was very closely related to the books that they were reading. Although the books that they were reading were different stories by Patricia Paloko who is a very prolific Michigan author who writes family stories. So the um—the “Book Club” discussions were about family stories, the student’s writing activities were a—the sustained ones were about gathering information to create a family story. They’re writing and response to the texts they were reading involved writing in response to a family story. So naturally they wrote a lot about other family stories in their own lives. Um, the whole class component we call “Community Share”—there’s an opening community share that’s very teacher controlled where she or he introduces skills or strategies or sets up the reading for the day. The kids then do the reading, they do some writing, um they have their small group discussion then they have another whole class activity that’s called a “Closing Community Share.” But that’s much more student controlled. The teacher still leads it but what the content is, is more thematically related and it grows out of what the kids have written about and discussed that the teacher’s observed during that lesson. So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this work is how important it is to involve the oral and written language in very meaningful ways with each other. To have the students writing every day, reading every day, and talking every day, but doing that sandwiched between some very clear opportunities for the teachers to teach skills and strategies and then to build the kind of thematic knowledge that helps children understand the storied nature of literature, which goes back to some of the earlier um comments I’d made about the curriculum. Understanding that—that literature is the—the recorded history of humanity. It’s something we’re seeing eight year olds understand through units like “Our Storied Lives” and—and reading others and writing their own. They’re also seeing themselves in the stories. They’re seeing why they’re learning about letter names and letter sounds and syllables and punctuation and uh the role of text and illustration and how they work together because it’s helping them be critical analysts of these texts that they’re reading, more then simply just reading them to answer questions at the end of the text. So we’re finding interesting things from the “Book Club” work when we interview kids the following year in the fall and ask kids in “Book Club” to tell us about books they read the previous year. If—in one study we did the kids had read 14 books the previous year. The smallest number the children could remember was 11 of the 14 books. And I don’t mean just like saying titles but could actually talk about the books. Sometimes they even forgot the titles but they could tell you in depth about the books. We compared that to kids from the same classroom but who had come in from a non-“Book Club” class. We asked those kids to tell us about the books they’d read last year or the stories. Inevitably the only books they could remember—and the—maybe one or two, and they’d remember a teacher read aloud, almost to a ‘T’. I don’t want to say no one because I can’t remember for sure. But actually I don’t think any of the kids remembered any of the short stories they had read from their basal reader. I would bet they would have remembered those stories had they engaged in the depth of interaction around them. So I don’t think it’s a case of anything in a basal reader is bad, anything in literature is good. I do think what we’ve learned from the book club work is the nature of the activities around the stories they’re reading need to parallel the real world, need to use writing and oral language as tools in the interactions they’re having with text, and they need to be connected and in some meaningful ways to their own lives. And if you do that, they don’t treat the knowledge as “Oh, I don’t need to re—you know, the—the classic questions, “Do I need to remember this for the test?” And you want to say to the kids, “No, you want to remember this for your whole life.” What we’re seeing from the “Book Club” work is they don’t ask those kinds of questions anymore and they do remember them for their life—at least the life of the next—through the next year and—and they remember the feeling of why they were reading and the excitement about the books.
OK. Um, I’m asked a lot about question/answer relationships or QARs. That was actually um my dissertation study in 1979, 80, that time. At the time I was doing the QAR research—that was at a time when comprehension instruction research was really just beginning. So the QAR work initially was designed to ask the question “What happens if you teach children about different sources of information?” And so the whole idea of QAR is in the staying power it had, I think is because it was a fairly um manageable and fairly simple way to help kids understand the difference between going to the text to get information, going to your head to get information. If you go to the text sometimes you can just find it really quickly and it’s a little fact that’s kind of right there. But sometimes you have to actually or—think about how that text was organized and put it together in ways that involve thinking and searching. So it had a lot of um sort of face validity to what kids had to do anyway but that we didn’t have labels for. So what—what I see the QAR work and the staying power its had is it’s literally a vocabulary for talking about a very abstract concept but it’s an activity that’s very much a pervasive part of classroom practice. A huge part of the classroom practices involves teachers asking or students asking and then others answering particularly questions as they relate to text. And having just a—a language for being able to say um “No, you gave me a right there answer but I really wasn’t asking that. I—I was really asking for you to—to go to head—think about.” Or to say, “You gave me a good in my head answer but, you know, the—the text had a lot of information about that. You know, you could have given me that answer and not even read the text. So think about what you learned, let’s…” And I think the—the way it’s misused a lot is sort of exercise activities like, you know, a teacher will ask a group of kids a question and then the—the big thing is whether or not they get the QAR right. And I’ve had teacher e-mail me and ask me um—set up a situation and “here—here’s the text, here’s the question. I asked it. Some kids said it was this kind of QAR and other said it was that and I didn’t know how to respond and which is right?” And my answer to them is always, “Declare it a success and move on.” If—if the kids are debating using the QAR terminology about the source of the information it—it actually doesn’t matter beyond—you don’t have to prove one’s right or one’s not because what you’re doing is showing that they’ve developed a language for being able to articulate the strategies they were using to try to sort out the answer to the question. And most questions have a number of different strategies you can use. Its just thinking about which is the most appropriate. The resurgents today I think is because of the test-taking skill idea and in—where I’ve heard teachers use it—use it as basically to say—they hand out a test and they say, “Look, don’t get screwed up on this test.” Basically they do not care about anything that’s in your head. They don’t want you to do any author and you work here. All they want are the right there and think it through. So it’s a way of just basically laying out the parameters. And that’s so much healthier then teaching to a test. It’s basically saying that the test is a juandra of text and if you know the rules for this particular juandra, you won’t get tripped up in what’s being asked. And so I think that’s where the QAR work has—has suddenly become—it’s sort of always been there but it’s getting a lot of attention again. I think it’s around the test-taking work more then around the comprehension activities.
I think the think that I’ve come to become most um interested in and that I think we’ve done the most disservice around is helping teachers understand literacy as a cultural practice and having them explore the role of literacy in their own lives. Too many of the teachers that I work with, um like many of us, we all look a lot alike, we sound a lot alike, we assume that um—I’ve had even—I’ve had teachers even say things to me like, “Well, you know, I—I don’t have any culture. You know, I’m just—I’m just like every other American” and—and they see culture as a very exotic, out there, sort of um experience. And one of the things we’ve been doing a lot—Susan Flori, Rerane, and I have been working on this together is having teachers engage in reading themselves, um reading a lot of autobiographical literature written by um immigrants who have—who share the immigrant experience and share a lot about literacy as cultural practices within their own lives. And through the reading of that—it’s the idea of making the familiar strange, then getting teachers to look at their own lives and—and start getting a handle on what they brought to school and what they still bring to school in terms of biases and attitudes and assumptions about literacy. Help them make those strains so they can look at them, and study them, and analyze them and then in turn bring that knowledge to working with the diverse youngsters they’re looking—they’re working with to try to um see what strengths those children are bringing. The deficit model is still way to dominant in our schools and too much of that is because we impose difference being a problem. We’re the only country in the world that looks at having a second, third, fourth language as being a problem instead of looking at the teacher who has one language as really being the problem. And I—I think that we could just do a much, much better job of helping the multicultural education better articulat—articulate and—and more strongly penetrate the reading language arts curriculum. Because if you believe that literature is the base of the reading language arts curriculum, literature is the story of human experience. That is culture and that’s what we’re teaching our kids to have access to and it’s very hard to do that if you don’t understand culture in your own lives.