July 26, 2016

Who is Doing the Work?

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The brain that does the work is the brain that does the learning.–David Sousa

This week we are exploring the ways that planning Common Core lessons is different from our lesson planning when we were expected to teach state standards. Some of the differences are obvious, such as changes in text levels, and others are more subtle. We are most concerned with the subtleties of scaffolding and facilitating student independence, and challenge you to look closely at your lessons to identify places that your work may be eliminating thinking work for students. It is possible that much of the lesson planning we have traditionally done, that of identifying the vocabulary to pre-teach or figuring out how to build background knowledge for students, has actually interfered with our efforts to facilitate their independence! We are interested in supporting you as you adjust your lessons so that students do more of the work and develop agency about their reading. Please note, we are not suggesting a rigid model, but rather a few semantic shifts with which you can experiment as you work to help students independently apply the meaning-making strategies we teach them.

Tasks such as those described above, including pre-teaching vocabulary or summarizing the main idea of the text before students read it, fall into question with the Common Core. Examine your lessons closely for similar scaffolding and get serious about figuring out how to let students do more of this work. The following questions can help you analyze your instruction:


  • Can students identify the areas of the work that need their attention? Example: Rather than pre-teaching vocabulary words and pointing out parts that might be hard in this text, students work in pairs to skim the text and discuss how they will manage what they anticipate will be difficult for them.

  • Can students decide the type of strategy or work they need to do to understand a text? Example: Rather than telling students to work on inferring with a particular text, tell students to read a new text and then let them suggest a strategy and talk about how it did or didn’t work and why.

  • Can students self-monitor their understanding and identify the areas of the text that they do not understand? Example: Rather than introducing a text by giving students a summary or telling students ahead of time which parts of the text are “tricky,” thus pre-empting that trickiness, have students work in pairs to identify the parts of the text where they require clarification.

  • Can students share the thinking behind the strategies that work for them? Example: Rather than telling students what to do first, second, and third to understand a text, let students work with partners to see what they can figure out and create anchor charts that list their processes.

These are just a few examples of ways to adjust your lessons so that students are doing more of the work. We are not suggesting that you should do ALL of these in a single lesson, that you should ALWAYS use an instructional strategy such as these, or that you should NEVER pre-teach vocabulary or build background knowledge, etc. before students read. We are suggesting, however, that your instructional practices, whether traditional or revised, need to be exceedingly intentional and closely connected to your long-range goals for your students.


  1. Thank you, again, B & Y! More good things to think about.

    I agree with Patrice, too. I think sometimes we over-teach, and the kids under-learn. There may be a direct correlation between the two?

    Like Janet, too, I’m very impressed with the thinking Vinton and Barnhouse are doing about reading for meaning. I appreciate the way they help teachers understand how readers approach text, usually without a lot of instruction up front!, and then offer some suggestions and tools for teachers to try to replicate this process in the classroom. I’ve made it one of my goals this year to pare down what I’m “teaching” the kids; I’m erring on the side of having them DO more and then interact with them (a lot) in the process of that moment of doing. If, for some reason, you are interested in one teacher’s attempt to winnow, you might be interested in a blog post that I’ve done on that issue here:

    Thanks for such good thinking.

  2. Reading and enjoying these a lot, Jan and Kim. I agree with the comment by Patrice. I also am very taken with the work of Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse in the book you highlighted, What Readers Really Do. A teacher in Colorado is working with this and video-taping her students’ group work. She is showing live examples of what kids can do with text when they are focused on reading to find out, ie reading more deeply and talking about what they know from the text and what they are wondering about. What they are connecting with details within the text. Students need to practice this. Not learn about it. I often think about learning to ride a bike and how we might “teach” it in school….ie we would dissect it into little parts for a lesson with diagrams and dictionary work to name and define all the parts. Talk about various aspects of learning how to ride, what you can do on a bike, what experts do, all the benefits, etc. AND NEVER ACTUALLY seeing one or getting on one to try……but we taught “the bike and bike riding”…..I do think the standards want to raise us to this level, but Donald Graves wrote something (book/article) called “Beware of Orthodoxies” I need to find it and re-read. Thanks again, for pointing out such valuable information that will help teachers on this journey to find the frontline lessons and strategies and experiences that will work in classrooms and you are correct, it will be a varied menu approach…..one size will not fit all, yet will still meet the standards.

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      If you find the article by Donald Graves, please send it our way! We, too, would be very interested in reading it. As always, thanks for sharing, Janet!

  3. Patrice Bucci says:

    I think it’s simple….just let them read. Read with them. Talk with them. The intentional teaching that needs to be done comes after the responsive teacher has followed the thinking of her students. The great work of Ellen Keene and Stephanie Harvey has been ” basalized” . Teachers teach the strategy of the month and follow reading program teachers editions that don’t even remotely resemble authentic reading. Frank Serafini says it best when he asks how many of us do a retelling after we read a great book. Now the common core asks teachers to stretch via “text complexity” …one can only imagine how that will be interpreted as we go forward .we had the whole language generation, then the NRP generation, and on to the common core generation. And all this with dwindling school budgets. Keep promoting critical thinking…..so many stakeholders lack that skill.

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      If there is a great boon as a result of the Common Core, we think it will be to reshift focus back onto critical thinking. We couldn’t agree more that so many lack this essential skill. Thanks so much for sharing!

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