Saturday, August 18, 2012

Instead of Having Children Guess, Anchor Ways to Problem Solve

The Problem with Guessing

Several understandings emerged as I worked this summer in the prevention of reading difficulties project with teachers, coaches, and K-3 children at 16 public school sites.  When working with children who are having difficulty acquiring foundational reading skills the way we support them is rather important, especially given the regimented (and now national) understanding that all students  need to read by a specific date (i.e., end of grade 1).  Whether I was observing small group high intensity guided literacy lessons, one-to-one tutoring sessions, or whole class interactive read aloud--prompting children to guess was unfortunately present. I think it is guessing that David Coleman may have had in mind when he blasted pre-reading (an unfortunate error on his part). It isn't pre-reading instruction that is a problem, but rather the mistake of prompting children to guess, rather than to problem solve.  These are not the same and the language we use may well be contributing to reading difficulties.

During a read aloud session I was observing, the teacher read a small section of text aloud, stopped, and asked the children to predict what was in an envelope. The children were unable to actually make any cogent predictions as they did not have enough textual information to do so. What they were left with was guessing and avoidance of the task as posing their own questions to elicit more information was not a behavior that was familiar, prompted, or anticipated. So I watched as some children offered outlandish guesses and others misbehaved.  The problem was the nature of the question and the text sample the teacher provided.  In posing questions we need to ensure that students have enough information and prior knowledge (or access to information) to make meaningful assertions.  This is not to say that the information should be spoon fed, but it does need to be accessible.  For example, during the read aloud, if seeing the text is important in order to problem solve, then access to the text needs to be procured in some manner so children can search (if necessary) and reread. In the remainder of this post, I illustrate some ways that teachers created meaningful opportunities for children to problem solve, instead of guessing.

Instead of Guessing, Anchor Ways to Know

Children meet with Ms. Senkiw to review directions.
Children are grouped to answer a text-dependent question.

In a first grade classroom, Ms. Senkiw posed questions in writing so that groups of students could respond after the read aloud to a specific question.  This task was enhanced as students had access to the read aloud text about Sonia Sotomayor.

Kindergartners study symbiotic relationships by keeping track of animal partnerships.
 In other classrooms, teachers used charts that they made with the students as places to pose questions which often contained quoted text and to model how information can be collected and then used to enhance knowledge. It is necessary to reread the charts as they provide children the opportunity to think about emerging patterns.  For example, during an interactive read aloud of the picture book, Weird Friends, teachers made charts with kindergartners in order to keep track of the animal partnerships discussed in the book.  Specifically they wanted to know which animals, what the partnership was, and who benefited from the partnership. In studying biological interactions, mutualism and parasitic relationships are illustrated in the book.

Page from a kindergartner's illustrated book based on Weird Animals that contains fact, illustration, and labels.
Another teacher (following the suggestions of the literacy coach, Jeff Williamson) had children reproduce the relationships by having children illustrate, label, and record a fact for each animal partnership. This work was introduced through teacher modeling. The teacher then supported each child through conferring. The children assembled their own books which they were able to reread. Drawing, labeling, and retelling facts help children to be curious about, understand, and name the symbiotic relationships.  Enhancing children's scientific knowledge is an outcome to this read aloud and may well require us to do our own research in order to better understand the concepts related to the text.

Ms. Spence uses post its to guide her discussion with students.
In conversation this summer with second grade teacher, Ms. Spence, she explained that she had to spend considerable time reading about the boreal forest, as she was unfamiliar with it.  She did this in preparation to reading, Life in a Boreal Forest to her students. This preparation allowed her to augment the text through shared writing, anchor charts, and morning message. It is not surprising given the level of preparation that Ms. Spence did that her students benefited.  Other teachers simply told me the text was too difficult for their children and they read it once (if that!) and then did not return to it. It is a mistake to assume children's picture books are going to be easy to understand. Many are about complex topics and require us to plan well which often includes developing our our knowledge.

Ms. Spence's morning message raises children's awareness of the text and embeds domain-specific vocabulary.

Preparing Questions, Artifacts, and Engagements Ahead of Time

Use post its to remember when & what you want to ask.
The importance of planning cannot be overstated.  Students are left guessing, instead of being strategic, when teachers fail to plan well, prepare for the lessons adequately, or mistake their knowledge for their students and ask questions or assign tasks that do not or cannot forward learning.  In contrast, when teachers are purposeful like Ms. Senkiw, Mr. Williamson, and Ms. Spence and research, plan and prepare what is needed ahead of time, children have more consistent opportunities to deepen their knowledge of content and strategies. This also allows teachers to make adjustments to their plans when teaching as they are not inventing, and can pay better attention to the children, noticing what they are and are not doing and saying.

Here are some examples of how Ms. Spence prepared and shared the knowledge she learned with students to augment the reading of Life in a Boreal Forest. 

Create shared reading text about the topic.

Contrast and compare read aloud texts.

In preparation to the summer school work, I created a 45-page multimodal e-book that provided sample questions, suggested anchor charts, and tasks for each read aloud that teachers were provided across the four grades.  (You can access that book through iTunes here.) The book is free and contains a lot of videos illustrating interactive read aloud techniques, management techniques, as well as questions, charts, and tasks.  Most of the questions are coded to the Common Core State Standards (at the K and 1 level, also mathematics CCSS).  In designing the guide I wanted to illustrate the nature of planning as I do believe this is rather critical. I hoped teachers would augment, like the teachers mentioned in this post did, and be selective in what they used from the guide. 


  1. I love this! It really makes me think of how I will guide my first graders to think about their reading. It seems that prompting them to "guess" might even do harm.

    1. So good to know, Kerry. We need to be strategic with our language so that what we say matches our intention. Please take a look at the interactive read aloud ebook. I ma curious what you think. You may want to take a look at a few earlier posts from this month that are specifically about emergent and early reading.

  2. I will definitely read more. I'm also following you on Twitter. My team is currently considering the depth of understanding for each comprehension skill and how students might show their level of understanding. Our instruction is crucial. It means guiding students to be independent thinkers and own their own thoughts.

    1. I am following you as well. I just posted about 10 less traditional ways I come to know students. Some might be helpful with your comprehension tasks. Good luck:)


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