Let Them Think

Barnhouse and Vinton say, “Our ultimate task is to remain teachers of thinking, not conveyors of thought.”  That statement really hit home for me  while reading What Readers Really Do.  I kept thinking of all the times I’ve tried to nudge students to come up with the same interpretation of a text that I had. Once, while reading Crow Boy to a class, I thought the students’ comments were way off the mark, so I tried to guide them toward what the “real theme” of the text was.  I knew it wasn’t good teaching as I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself.  Please tell me there are others out there who have trapped themselves in a similar way!

Here are some ideas that have inspired me from What Readers Really Do and will help me in the future:

1.  Barnhouse and Vinton use a KNOW/WONDER chart as their main tool.  They keep the idea of modeling to a minimum and instead let students make suggestions of what to put on the chart as they read aloud a text to the class.  They may read only a page or two of the book and then stop and let kids talk. Thus, from the very beginning the kids are negotiating their own meaning of the text. (Once the chart has a few entries, they read the rest of the first chapter uninterrupted.)

2. They teach the children to attend to details, not knowing at first which details may prove important down the line. The “not knowing” is all part of the process and is different from “not comprehending.”  You might not know what a character will do or what will happen next, but that “not knowing” is what keeps you reading and keeps you engaged.

3. Students notice patterns.  They ask the students, “Is there anything that keeps repeating; a character who keeps acting the same way, or phrases you notice that keep repeating?” Some patterns are listed together as a class on the chart, but the students can also keep track of their own patterns in a notebook.

4. Students come to realize how reading is a lot like writing in that we are constantly drafting and revising our ideas.

5. The authors say they let some misreadings go.  If we start correcting students who get off track noticing details that we know will eventually have no significance, we would only interfere with their sense of agency.

6. The authors don’t believe that the only reasons writers write are: to inform, to persuade, or to entertain (a poster you’ll often see in classrooms.) They’ve asked several authors of chapter books, “Why did you write this book?” and the answers don’t easily fit under one of those categories.

7. Barnhouse and Vinton tend not to introduce literary terms or strategy words to the students until they have actually experienced them. This fits exactly with my thinking about keeping meaning-making at the forefront and not teaching strategies for strategies’ sake.

7. They trust that if students follow patterns, keep wondering, make connections between some of the things they are thinking about, develop hunches, continuously draft and revise their ideas, then students will understand what they read at a much deeper level. When books are finished they give students time to think about what the author might be trying to say in this book about life or living and how that might impact the students’ own lives.

8. They suggest using several very powerful texts.  I’ve read all but one, so I concur on the strength of each text for multiple ways of thinking.  These include: Pictures of Hollis Wood, Because of Winn-Dixie, Just Juice, How To Steal a Dog, Miracle’s Boys, and  A Taste of Blackberries. And to their list, I’d add One For the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. I had seen so many recommendations for this book from teachers I respect, I just had to buy it.  There hasn’t been a girl character/foster child like this one since The Great Gilly Hopkins!

Barnhouse and Vinton want each of their students to leave their classrooms believing that “meaning is theirs to make.” I want that too, so I hereby vow to talk less, force-guide less, prompt for my ideas less, and let students do the talking and thinking!


  1. Yes, I have been a talk-aholic myself – you are not alone! I also loved the idea of using a pencil on anchor charts early in the ‘drafting’ process. Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

  2. An excellent blog post.

    I am tired of teachers pushing reading strategies to the point they become annoying routines that are not in favor of actual learning. Aside from that, this nearly obsessive return to strategies diminishes the joy of reading – which is the right of the reader of any age.

    I recommend reading a good article on how these strategies hinder learning from Daniel T. Willingham, cognitive psychologist http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter0607/CogSci.pdf

  3. Don’t worry Pat- Not only have I nudged kids to follow my view of what’s important in a book, I actually did it with the book the authors used as an example! In Fly Away Home, I was bound to have the studenst to “get it” as I did. I felt as though I’d been caught red-handed! when I read that section of What Readers Really Do! I love this book and am so glad you’re chatting about it. .

  4. Pingback: Readers Front and Center | Catching Readers Before They Fall

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