All posts by Jaeann Tschiffely

“Can I draw?”

Read Aloud and Dual Coding to Build Comprehension

My experience has taught me that reading aloud to students can be a very valuable tool to build comprehension skills in students. We know how important reading aloud is for younger students, so why is it that as they get older this practice seems to diminish and fade away?  We may feel time pressure to follow required curricula or it may seem like students aren’t listening when they ask to draw while you read. I have put this to use.

First I chose a book they can’t read for themselves. Recently it has been an Alex Rider book earlier a Harry Potter book.  For 4th graders with very low reading scores and very limited vocabulary so this may seem very ambitious, but just because it is above their reading ability does not mean it is above their interest level.

Next I structured their drawing. To start with I had them fold a paper in half lengthwise then fold it in fours leaving 8 squares. Room for a “sketch” box on the left and a “jot” box on the right. For each chapter they were to draw one thing in the “sketch” box and then write three key words or phrases in the “jot” box.

We continued this for a few days. I then asked them to fold their paper in six sections, three across. Now they did their sketch and jot, then found a classmate to share with. Any jots the classmate had that they did not were then added into the third “share” box. I also had them add a caption or labels to the “sketch”.

What I was able to point out to the students is that the “sketch” box contained the main idea of the chapter and the jots were the supporting details.

I also provided copies of the book for the students and they were able to go back and reread to find the detail they didn’t quite remember or may argue about with their friends. These students all read well below grade level and are unable to pass a written or multiple choice comprehension test, but they are now able to find the main idea and important details in literature and defend their choice.

In our school we are required to do daily fluency practice and have our students chart their progress. Some make progress in the number of words they can read in a minute but but many do not and comprehension has stayed low. What I have noticed is that when they are able to understand what they are reading they are better able to predict the coming text and their fluency increases. This is not immediate as at first they slow down in an attempt to get meaning from their reading, something that was not measured in their graph and therefore not valued. After a brief period of decreased fluency, it often increases dramatically. As their comprehension increases, they are better able to predict what is coming. So while it is often argued that a student must have fluency for comprehension, I argue that they must have comprehension for any meaningful fluency.

To put a slightly different spin on the ideas Robert Coe talks about in Classroom Observation: It’s Harder Than You Think, we end up valuing what we can measure rather than finding a way to measure what we value. Reading aloud to students of all ages has value that is difficult to measure whereas number of words per minute can be easily measured but is only a proxy for learning.

PYP Exhibition and Symbolic Reasoning

As an international school we offer the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. During grade 5 the students participate in “exhibition”, a time when they choose their own topic for inquiry, presentation and action. Our school has chosen to have the students present their Central Idea and Lines of Inquiry through the Arts. During this very hectic 6 week time the teachers still wanted to carve out time for the Let’s Think in English lessons. As it turns out this worked very well.
We chose to use Shaun Tan’s book The Red Tree and the Let’s Think Key Stage 2 lesson “Red”. The reasoning patterns emphasized for this lesson, Narrative Sequence with a strong dose of Symbolic Reasoning, were perfect for bridging to inquiry into a larger concept and then presentation through art.
After asking the students to put illustrations from the book in order, match them to the text they are intended to go with, and explain their choices, their attention is then drawn to the fact that there is at least one red leaf on every page. Students are given time to discover that the red leaf is a symbol and discuss what it symbolizes. They are then told that Shaun Tan has said the he was working on the idea of a book without a story and asked to explore the impact of sequencing on meaning.
Our students connected this author and illustrator’s choices very quickly to their own inquiry into a larger concept and effort to share their understanding of that concept through art. We then were able to create a bridging activity where they took the concept they were working on and created one symbol that could represent the concept. Students created symbols to represent concepts ranging from the quite concrete banana peel to symbolize food waste, to the more symbolic image of eyes representing self-consciousness.
Although the Let’s Think Lessons are stand alone and meant to be about teaching thinking and not subject matter, when you are teaching conceptually as we do in the PYP, there are ample opportunities for bridging and reinforcing the reasoning patterns.

Beyond the Engaging Conversation; Getting Kids to Think

As teachers we thrive on that really great conversation with a class of students.  It doesn’t matter whether they are 6 or 16 it is fun to see them passionate about a story you’ve read together, a sudden discovery they’ve made in science, or a connection they’ve made in math. It is so rewarding to see them excited when they have learned something new.  It can be a comfortable place for us to sit and bask in the good feeling.  It is also pleasant for the students.  They are engaged, but have we really stretched their thinking. I don’t think the Zone of Proximal Development is a familiar or comfortable place, but rather new and awkward.

Those really great discussions should be a starting point not an end; a crack in their simplistic understanding that needs a teacher to exploit and move toward greater complexity. When they are already engaged, we can use that to ask them to do the next hard thing, to think.  We must mediate;  ask them why, ask them to provide evidence, ask them to explain their thinking, and ask them to take a step back from that really engaging text and look at Reasoning Patterns.  

Michael Walsh, our tutor from Let’s Think in English, has provided us with 5 reasoning patterns to explore with children in discussion of literature:  Classification, Frames of Reference, Symbolic Representation, Intention and Consequences and Narrative Sequencing.  This will not happen organically, but must be planned for and opportunities exploited, by intentioned mediation.

Feuerstein et al.(2006) make it clear that the “mediating agent (the teacher) is guided by intention”  “The central feature which makes an interaction mediational is the mediator has an intention to transcend the immediate needs or concerns of the recipient of mediation by going beyond the here and now, in space and time.”

The interesting thing is, that when I have tried this with students it doesn’t diminish their engagement, instead they transfer that enthusiasm from the interesting story to the new cognitively demanding challenge.  They are actually engaged by the challenge, by pushing through the new and awkward, by engaging with that new way of thinking until it becomes less awkward and becomes their own.

I said in my last post that my mantra question while teaching is “What is my student really learning from the choice I make?”  If I want them to learn to think deeply and complexly I must make the decision that will push us both out of our comfort zone and into that unfamiliar and awkward ZPD.


Feuerstein, al. (2006) Creating and Enhancing Cognitive Modifiability: The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Program

The Thinking Teacher Teaches Thinking

As teachers we make literally hundreds of decisions every day. From the mundane “Can I go to the bathroom?” to the more complex “What do I need to teach next and how?” And even the mundane count when you think of it from the child’s point of view. They learn much about themselves from our decisions.
Something is always being learned whether we want it to be or not. Frank Smith in The Book of learning and Forgetting says, “The problem in school is not that many students aren’t learning but what they are learning – They learn to be non-readers or that they are non-spellers or that they can’t do math.” It was only when I moved to Switzerland that I realized that at some point in my life I had learned that learning a second language is hard. This is something that the Swiss don’t learn and I can never forget, even though I wasn’t asked to memorize it.
When we don’t let students struggle and fail before they succeed, they learn that we don’t believe they are capable and they certainly don’t learn how to learn. When we give too much praise at the wrong time they learn not to think, but to find the “right answer”, and sometimes they learn not to trust or value our opinion because they know they did not give their best. They learn to be compliant rather than creative when we do not trust them to learn.
Early in my career my principal, Norm Sam, gave me The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith. This book caused me to reflect and come up with a question that I ask myself continuously as I make those hundreds of decisions every day, “What will my student really be learning from this choice or that?” Not what I am teaching or what do I think I am teaching, but what is he really learning from me?
As thinking teachers what are the question you ask that guide your decision making?

Every Lesson is a Vocabulary Lesson

I have come to realize that every lesson we teach is a vocabulary lesson. When students struggle with the meaning of key words or command terms in a task, it can derail the key objective in a lesson or result in an inappropriate assessment of the students’ knowledge. This was made evident again in two recent lessons, one English Literature and the other math.
In a math lesson where the main objective was double digit multiplication, the problem given to develop the students understanding was one of area. It soon became apparent that many students were confusing perimeter and area despite having worked with the concepts the previous day. Had the students been given time to construct a definition for area together and differentiate area from perimeter, they would have had the necessary tools to keep their table group from getting lost in the vocabulary.
In the English lesson the students were asked what they could infer or deduce about the characters, from the text. Before the reading began the students were given a few minutes together in table groups to talk about the words infer and deduce, and how they differ from the word know. The groups then shared their ideas and as a class came to an understanding of the two key command terms. It took less than five minutes for the class to come to a socially constructed common understanding that gave them what they needed to keep their group working on the real task of the lesson.
As a teacher it is easy to assume that students have a common understanding of the vocabulary they have been taught and that they understand the task they are asked to do. Often when you begin to analyze errors and find where students go wrong, you will find vocabulary is at the root. Giving the students time to socially construct the meaning of words and play around with them, even after an initial understanding, will broaden their ability to use language and participate in the content.