In Praise of Wiggle Room: Locating Comprehension in Unlikely Places

Research Directions
  Research Directions

                        Maren Aukerman

                        In Praise of Wiggle Room:
                        Locating Comprehension in Unlikely Places

                            The spiders that Americans           but I believe there is far more to            as containing certain information,
                        call tarantulas are part of a fam-       José’s idiosyncratic reading—                 and comprehension means having
                        ily, or group, of spiders named          and to his comprehension—than                 the predetermined “right” under-
                        Hairy Mygalomorphs. Hairy                first meets the eye. José was, after          standing of that information. If the
                        Mygalomorphs are known by sci-           all, actively hypothesizing and               author of The Tarantula meant one
                        entists as primitive spiders. They       making his own meaning. I will                thing by “millions of years” and
                        have existed for millions of years,      argue here that our pedagogies                José thought it meant another, then
                        yet have changed very little.            of teaching reading need to take              José did not comprehend. When
                        (McGinty, 2002, p. 7)                    this active meaning making more               we rely on comprehension tests,
                                                                 seriously than we often do.                   both standardized and nonstan-
                        Just after reading this section              Of course, what we think                  dardized, we usually are seeing
                        of The Tarantula (McGinty,               about José’s reading compre-                  comprehension in this light. I label
                        2002) in his small reading group,        hension (and what we think we                 this view the comprehension-as-
                        fourth-grader José (all names are        ought to do about it as teachers)             outcome perspective.
                        pseudonyms) offered aloud this           depends on what we think com-                     Teacher B: “José has poor
                        understanding of the text:               prehension is. I begin, then, by              comprehension. He simply doesn’t
                                                                 looking at three ways that com-               have the strategies, skills, and
                            “Right here, I think with            prehension has been conceptu-                 prior knowledge that he needs to
                        the ‘million years,’ ‘millions of        alized, and then consider their               figure out what the text means.”
                        years,’ I think, like, spiders can       implications for the teaching of
                        live for a million years and that’s                                                        In this case, comprehension is
                                                                 reading.                                      seen as a stable, relatively uni-
                        how long scientists have been
                        studying them. For millions of                                                         form procedure that enables stu-
                        years, to get used to them and to        WHAT ARE SOME                                 dents to arrive at the “right”
                        get a lot of information and facts       MEANINGS IMPLIED                              understanding of texts. The
                        about them, so they can, like, tell      BY “COMPREHENSION”?                           good reader is seen as one who
                        us, so they can tell us which ones                                                     accesses a fixed set of strategies
                                                                 It is helpful to think about three            to arrive successfully at the out-
                        are deadly and which ones are
   September 2008

                                                                 different hypothetical teachers,              come with which Teacher A was
                        not deadly.”                             and how each might describe                   concerned. Those without suffi-
                                                                 what was going on with José’s                 cient expertise with these strat-
                            Now, we know, in fact, that          comprehension.
                        a single spider cannot live for                                                        egies will not comprehend. I
                        a million years. (Male tarantu-              Teacher A: “José did not                  call this the comprehension-as-
   Vol. 86 ● No. 1 ●

                        las seldom live much more than           demonstrate comprehension of                  procedure perspective.
                        10 or 12 years; the more fortu-          The Tarantula book. He re-                        Teacher C: “José’s com-
                        nate female tarantulas may live          ally missed the boat when he                  prehension of the text does not
                        up to 25 years or so.) Scientifi-        started talking about how long he             always match the ways I am
                        cally, then, José’s understanding        thought spiders lived, didn’t he?”            constructing my understanding of
                        was incorrect.                               In this case, comprehension is            the text as I am reading it. I have
   Language Arts ●

                            There are those who would            seen as an outcome, something                 to really think about how he is
                        extrapolate that José, an English-       that one has or does not (perhaps             constructing his understandings,
                        language learner, demonstrated           to varying degrees) as a result of            what his reasons are for saying
                        poor reading comprehension,              having read a text. The text is seen          what he did.”


                                              Copyright © 2008 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.

LA_Sept2008.indd 52                                                                                                                             7/28/08 11:04:47 AM
In this case, comprehension is        NONSTANDARD                           not successful in finding a way of

                                                                                                                                     Research Directions
             seen as a purposeful decision-        UNDERSTANDINGS VERSUS                 using what she already knew to
             making process about what a           THE SENSATION OF NOT
                                                                                         account for what the text might
             text might mean, a process that                                             mean. Even though his reading
             does not depend on the reader
                                                   UNDERSTANDING                         was “wrong,” Jóse had far more
             arriving at any one particular        It is important that we recognize     in common (as a reader) with
             “right” understanding.                that there are times when read-       those of us whose readings are
                                                   ers are unable to generate any        “right” than he did with Rebecca.
                 From this perspective, we
                                                   hypothesis about the text that sat-
             comprehend whenever our minds
                                                   isfactorily explains the text from    The Comprehension-as-
             engage in figuring out what a
                                                   their own perspective. This is not    Outcome View
             text could mean. Different peo-
                                                   the same thing as having a non-
             ple will engage in this hypothesiz-                                         Differences like those between
                                                   standard (“incorrect”) under-
             ing differently, and this “figuring                                         José and Rebecca get overlooked
                                                   standing, as José did; José, after
             out” counts as comprehension,                                               when the comprehension-as-
                                                   all, had a meaning worked out for
             regardless of whether the result-                                           outcome view predominates. From
                                                   what he thought the text was talk-
             ing understanding is always rec-                                            this perspective, either a student
                                                   ing about.
             ognizable as “right.” There is                                              gets the one “right” meaning, or
             a radical premise involved in             It would be a very different      (like both José and Rebecca) s/he
             accepting Teacher C’s view: even      situation if one of José’s class-     doesn’t get some or all of it—and
             though José arrived at a differ-      mates, Rebecca, had said, “I have     thus does not have comprehension.
             ent understanding (and one that       no idea what that paragraph was
                                                                                             If comprehension-as-outcome
             was scientifically incorrect), he     about. Something about hairy
                                                                                         is the primary goal of instruc-
             was still doing the intellectual      Mygalomorph somethings, but
                                                                                         tion, the teacher’s job is to make
             work of comprehension. He was         I have no idea what. Just tell me
                                                                                         sure that the student learns what
             engaged in sense making—an            what it means!” Of course, even
                                                                                         the text is “really” saying. In
             active pondering of how the text      Rebecca (like José) expressed an
                                                                                         José’s case, this might involve the
             fit with his understandings of the    idea that involved a few dimen-
                                                                                         teacher providing a mini-lesson at
             world and with what he wanted         sions of a standard understand-
                                                                                         what would seem to be a teachable
             to accomplish—in order to con-        ing (one recognized as plausible
                                                                                         moment—the point when José’s
             struct a meaning that he found        by the teacher). She was not
                                                                                         nonstandard understanding came
             textually consistent. I term this     proposing that the passage was
                                                                                         to light. (Perhaps even better, from
             comprehension-as-sense-making.        about Rumpelstiltskin. Rebecca,
                                                                                         this perspective, would be for
             I argue that this perspective on      though, was overwhelmed by the
                                                                                         the teacher to present the accu-
             meaning making should become          sensation of not understanding.
                                                                                         rate information beforehand—to
             central to how we conceptualize           José and Rebecca would both       “build prior knowledge” before
             reading comprehension pedagogy.       probably fail a reading compre-       the reading so José would be sure
                 While I have attributed these     hension test question about this      to “get it” when he got there.)
             three distinctive views of com-       part of The Tarantula. But José
                                                                                             In the mini-lesson, the teacher
             prehension to different hypothet-     was able to make sense of what
                                                                                         could explain that when the text
             ical teachers, it is important to     he read, just as someone who
                                                                                         says spiders “existed for mil-
             understand that the same teacher      wound up with a more standard
                                                                                         lions of years” (McGinty, 2002,
             might use this one term, com-         (“correct”) understanding would,
                                                                                         p. 7), it means that the species has
             prehension, in each of these dif-     even if the sense that he made was
                                                                                         existed that long, but that many
             ferent ways at different points.      different. He was successfully
                                                                                         generations of spiders have lived
             Thus, an initial imperative (if we    engaged in hypothesizing: weav-
                                                                                         and died during that time span.
             want to tease apart these multiple    ing together textual evidence with
                                                                                         Alternatively, the teacher might
             meanings) is to be explicit about     his prior understandings, rejecting
                                                                                         ask a series of directive questions
             which meaning is in play when         theories that did not fit his read-
                                                                                         aimed at the same result. Or, the
             we speak of a particular student’s    ing of the evidence, and actively
                                                                                         teacher might ask another student
             comprehension, or when we dis-        deciding on a meaning that was
                                                                                         whom she felt had better compre-
             cuss the teaching of comprehen-       (to him) consistent with the evi-
                                                                                         hension of the text to explain the
             sion more generally.                  dence. Rebecca, by contrast, was


LA_Sept2008.indd 53                                                                                                       7/28/08 11:04:48 AM
concept to José. Rebecca might         read a tarantula book at all; with          Even though the idea behind
  Research Directions

                        need a somewhat different mini-        such a mini-lesson, he would not        teaching comprehension-as-
                        lesson, but she too would be in        have been engaged in any textual        procedure is that students will
                        dire need of having the “real”         heavy lifting for himself.              eventually use the given reading
                        meaning explained to achieve               I argue that, when instruc-         procedures flexibly and indepen-
                        comprehension-as-outcome.              tion is aimed at producing              dently, it is not clear that explic-
                            There are times when explicit      comprehension-as-outcome, it is         itly taught strategies transfer well
                        explanation of what a text means       the content of the material, and not    to new reading situations (RAND
                        might well be important. For           reading itself, that is being taught.   Reading Study Group, 2002).
                        example, if I want a young child       At best, the absorbed content           Another, larger problem with this
                        to learn that the illuminated red      becomes available prior knowl-          view is that it sees the process of
                        words that say “Don’t Walk” mean       edge for the next reading. At worst,    comprehending as something that
                        one needs to wait to cross the         José will harbor the expectation        all good readers do in fundamen-
                        street, telling the child what the     that he should not independently        tally the same way, thereby mak-
                        sign means may well be the most        pursue his own hypothesizing, but       ing it teachable through generic
                        efficient means of getting that mes-   should instead wait passively for       imitation coupled with the kind
                        sage across. Similarly, if I know      the teacher’s explanation of what       of directive step-by-step coach-
                        José is about to take a high-stakes    the text “really” means—some-           ing that might help a young child
                        science test in which he will be       thing that Rebecca, who felt so         learn to tie her shoe.
                        quizzed about the tarantula’s life     confused, might do.                         But is reading comprehension
                        span, I might have good reason to                                              in fact a procedure that can be
                        make sure that his comprehension-      The Comprehension-as-                   executed with the same relative
                        as-outcome is the “right” one.         Procedure View                          uniformity as tying one’s shoe?
                            While some instruction of this     At first glance, teaching compre-       I argue that reading requires the
                        sort is defensible and necessary, it   hension-as-procedure may appear         ability—and freedom—to make
                        has considerable pedagogical limi-     to be a more appealing alternative      decisions about a text and to sub-
                        tations because only the outcome       than teaching toward comprehen-         sequently evaluate and revise
                        of reading is emphasized. From         sion-as-outcome. Here, after all, the   those decisions. There is evidence
                        this perspective, what students        emphasis is on teaching students a      that, when given the opportu-
                        understand, not how students come      standard procedure that will enable     nity, children have different inter-
                        to understand, is the main focus,      them to generate the “right” under-     pretive styles of engaging in the
                        thus positioning students as pas-      standing, rather than focusing on       process of comprehending, but
                        sive recipients of knowledge rather    comprehension-as-outcome itself.        that these individual styles fre-
                        than as active readers themselves.     Often, comprehension-as-proce-          quently become invisible when
                                                               dure involves teacher-modeling          the emphasis is on lockstep
                            In this instance, a mini-lesson                                            approaches to learning reading
                        that explains what the phrase          of “good” comprehension strate-
                                                               gies (such as summarizing), fol-        comprehension (Santori, 2006).
   September 2008

                        “existed for millions of years”                                                Teaching comprehension-as-
                        means in this context may help         lowed by guided practice where
                                                               teachers do everything possible         procedure runs counter to readers’
                        José understand that spiders do                                                need for intellectual wiggle room.
                        not live for a million years. (This    to ensure that students get the tar-
                        outcome itself is far from cer-        get strategy—and the meaning of             Most major theoretical per-
   Vol. 86 ● No. 1 ●

                        tain.) But even “getting” that,        the text—“right” (e.g., Palincsar &     spectives on textual meaning
                        he may have learned little that        Brown, 1984). Comprehension-as-         making paint a complicated pic-
                        will serve him well when he            procedure can also be foregrounded      ture of what texts are and how we
                        reads the next book. After all,        during guided reading or literature     build meanings from them—they
                        in that mini-lesson, José was          discussions when the teacher gives      do not lend support to privileg-
                        led to the standard understand-        the students specific steps to follow   ing comprehension-as-procedure.
                                                               or tells them the best way to “fix”     Consider schema theory, which
   Language Arts ●

                        ing by the teacher, rather than
                        through choices that he himself        a nonstandard understanding or to       proposes that the mind that
                        made about how to read. He may         resolve confusion (e.g., Fiene &        encounters text is never a blank
                        as well have listened to a lec-        McMahon, 2007).                         slate. We are always looking for
                        ture about tarantulas and never                                                a “mental ‘home’” (Anderson &

LA_Sept2008.indd 54                                                                                                                      7/28/08 11:04:48 AM
Pearson, 1984, p. 255) for textual    depend on social context, the           do as we read in order to accom-

                                                                                                                                       Research Directions
             ideas by reading them through,        decisions they make about what          plish particular social purposes.
             with, and against what we already     texts mean depend on context as         It is important to note that, while
             know about the world (our exist-      well. Teaching students that com-       these social purposes are fre-
             ing schema). Thus, texts do not       prehension is a procedure that can      quently interpersonal ones that
             have uniform meanings across          be learned by imitation and can         involve others directly, they can
             readers; because we do not draw       be practiced by applying a fixed        also be intrapersonal ones—ones
             upon the same prior experiences,      set of strategies minimizes this        that play out within the self but
             it is inevitable that the connec-     context-dependent social respon-        are inevitably shaped by relation-
             tions that we generate as we read     siveness that is at the heart of tex-   ships with others (as, for exam-
             will look somewhat different—         tual meaning making.                    ple, when we read alone).
             even when we are reading nonfic-          To think of the practical ped-          This perspective, which I
             tion text, as José was. Put simply,   agogical implications of a view         have termed comprehension-as-
             I can never read just like you read   that makes comprehension-as-            sense-making, does not depend
             (even if I admire how you read        procedure central, consider the         on whether the reader reaches a
             and think) because I am never         message we communicate to a             particular “right” understanding
             starting from the same place in       student like José when we say,          of the text at hand: José’s scien-
             the mind. For this reason, com-       “You didn’t comprehend. Here’s          tifically incorrect understanding,
             prehension-as-procedure—like          how you should do it so that you        paradoxically, represents suc-
             comprehension-as-outcome—does         can.” At best, we fail to acknowl-      cessful comprehension-as-sense-
             not sit well with schema theory.      edge the purposeful social and          making because he engaged in
                  Teaching comprehension-as-       intellectual work he is already         textual decision making in order
             procedure is arguably even less       doing, and the context of mean-         to reach it. Rumelhart (1981),
             compatible with a sociocultural       ing making as understood from           one of the early architects of
             view of learning than is teach-       his perspective. This is already        schema theory, might describe
             ing comprehension as outcome.         a bit of a deficit view. At worst,      José’s reading as a case where
             Socioculturally oriented educa-       we communicate that this pur-           “the reader will ‘understand’ the
             tors note that, in addition to con-   poseful work is the wrong thing         text, but will misunderstand the
             structing meaning on the basis        to be doing when he encounters          author” (p. 22). In other words,
             of prior experiences, readers         a text, a profoundly disrespect-        the process José undertook was
             work with texts to accomplish         ful view that is likely to confound     fully comprehension work, even
             their own social purposes as well     young readers trying to figure out      if the product did not represent a
             as to respond to the social pur-      what they should be doing when          standard understanding.
             poses of others (Aukerman, 2007;      they read. In this scenario, José           Even Rebecca, who struggled
             Dyson, 1999). For example, José       is taught, implicitly, that com-        with the sensation of not under-
             explained his understanding of        prehension is something done by         standing, may have been engaged
             The Tarantula (McGinty, 2002)         rote imitation—by doing it like         in some textual hypothesizing—
             not simply to express a mean-         others are doing it—rather than         if only to be able to reject pos-
             ing he found in the text, but also    by working from his own exist-          sible alternatives for what the
             to present himself as a certain       ing understandings and purposes         text could mean. But she was
             kind of person (one knowledge-        (which he was already doing             ultimately stymied in her deci-
             able about spiders and scien-         quite successfully).                    sion making. Being stymied in
             tists), to respond to things he had                                           our thinking about text proba-
             heard others say, and to secure       The Comprehension-as-                   bly happens at some point to just
             responses from others.                Sense-Making View                       about everyone, and being sty-
                  We are social actors when-       I argue that we would do well to        mied does not necessarily mean
             ever we read. Even when we read       look at comprehension as textual        we stop trying to figure out the
             alone, our meaning making is          hypothesizing for social purposes.      text ourselves. But if Rebecca’s
             responsive to the ideas that others   What I mean by hypothesiz-              main solution to being stymied is
             have brought to the table, or may     ing, specifically, is decision          to ask the teacher to do the deci-
             bring to the table in the future.     making about possible textual           sion making about textual mean-
             And, because readers’ purposes        meaning(s), something that we all       ing for her (e.g., “Ms. Jones, can

LA_Sept2008.indd 55                                                                                                         7/28/08 11:04:48 AM
you explain this? I don’t get it!”),    poses, several things are worth             Teacher: The book says
  Research Directions

                        she may be doing far less textual       bearing in mind. First, while           that tarantulas are part of what
                        hypothesizing herself. Arguably,        comprehension is not learned pri-       family?
                        then, a student such as José, who       marily by imitation, it is learned          Student: The Hairy Mygalo-
                        actively comes up with a possible       from (and with) others. For             morphs.
                        (but “wrong”) meaning for a text,       example, we are studying each
                        is more deeply engaged in com-          other’s purposes, and ways of               Teacher: Right! The Hairy
                        prehension-as-sense-making than         meeting those purposes, around          Mygalomorphs.
                        a student who passively waits           reading and discussing text; we             These kinds of questions
                        for the “right” explanation to be       are figuring out how to respond         can work well for documenting
                        given and accepts it just because       to the social purposes that others      whether students have arrived at
                        the teacher said so.                    bring to the table; we are decid-       the “correct” comprehension-as-
                            But, of course, José still got      ing which of our understandings         outcome, but are not as helpful
                        it wrong when he thought a spi-         accomplish which kinds of social        for facilitating comprehension-as-
                        der could live for a million years,     purposes. If we want to impress         sense-making. To understand why
                        and this raises an important ques-      someone, to persuade others, and        not, consider how the teacher’s
                        tion: Do we really want a peda-         so forth, some ways of textual          question is different from one that
                        gogy that simply lets a kid think       hypothesizing will serve us bet-        happens in ordinary talk:
                        the text means whatever s/he thinks     ter than others, depending on the           Tourist: Do black widow
                        it might mean, unquestioned? Not        circumstances.                          spiders live around here?
                        at all. We live in a world in which         Teaching comprehension-                 Texan: Well, you do have
                        some meanings get recognized as         as-sense-making does not mean           to watch out. I killed two in my
                        “right” and others as “wrong,” and      valorizing every textual hypoth-        garage last year with my bare
                        students do need to learn about this.   esis without question. Rather, it       hands.
                        Comprehension is not only sense         involves offering opportunities
                        making—it is socially purpose-          for reading in which developing             Tourist: You did? Wow! I’d
                        ful sense making. If José wants         readers not only engage in textual      better keep an eye out then. What
                        to convince those around him to         hypothesizing, but also can make        do they look like?
                        agree with him, some understand-        discoveries about the relationship          In the tarantula exchange, the
                        ings of the text (and some ways of      between ways of textual hypoth-         teacher already knew the answer
                        presenting textual evidence related     esizing and the accomplishment          that she wanted. Although the stu-
                        to those understandings) are more       of social purposes. This brings         dent did need to make a prelim-
                        likely to meet his goals.               up a further question: if we want       inary decision about the text’s
                            For this reason, educators can-     students to participate in textual      meaning within the tight param-
                        not afford to pay attention to only     discussions that stimulate such         eters set by the teacher, the
                        the textual hypothesizing itself;       discoveries, how might we want          decision that actually counted
                        we must also attend to social pur-      to reconceptualize the teacher’s        had already been made—by
   September 2008

                        poses that come into play as pos-       role in classroom dialogue?             the teacher. The student’s tex-
                        sible meanings are constructed.                                                 tual hypothesizing was part of a
                        I propose that every textual            How Evaluation Can                      largely predetermined script in
                        hypothesis is bound up in social        Inhibit Comprehension-                  which the teacher’s textual deci-
                                                                as-Sense-Making                         sion making and limited range
   Vol. 86 ● No. 1 ●

                        purposes. Yet, in conversations
                        about reading comprehension,            Currently, the most common form         of social purposes dominated.
                        one seldom hears about them.            of dialogue between teachers and        In addition, when a student par-
                        Too often, social purposes are          students involves the teacher initi-    ticipates in such an exchange,
                        either ignored completely or seen       ating with a question, the student(s)   classmates rarely get to think for
                        as something that plays out on a        responding with an answer, and          themselves about whether they
                        separate, parallel track.               the teacher then evaluating that        agree with the student’s idea; only
   Language Arts ●

                                                                response as right or wrong (Mehan,      the teacher’s evaluation matters.
                            But if we accept that
                        comprehension-as-sense-making           1982). These sequences, known as            In the black widow exam-
                        is always shaped by social pur-         I-R-E exchanges, look something         ple, though, the tourist posing
                                                                like this:                              the question genuinely wanted to


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know the answer, and the informa-    respectful, curious stance toward          also involve returning to ideas

                                                                                                                                      Research Directions
             tion shared by the Texan was new     students’ textual hypothesiz-              previously raised by students
             information that shaped what the     ing and their social purposes. I           later in the discussion. How-
             tourist did next. (One could only    think of it like this: the teach-          ever it takes place, neither the
             imagine the Texan’s puzzlement       er’s genuine need to understand            teacher nor the students will
             and irritation if the tourist had    how students are construct-                know in advance the shape the
             responded, “Right! Black widows      ing their meanings from text               conversation will take.
             do live in this area! Very good!”)   reflects a social purpose. As stu-    2.   Make textual decision mak-
                 What the Texan said helped       dents observe the teacher’s need           ing visible. The teacher asks
             establish her as a particular kind   to know, the textual work they             students to explain how they
             of person (one who kills venom-      do will often respond directly to          arrived at their thinking—
             ous spiders with her bare hands!).   that—that is, the teacher’s curi-          how textual evidence and
             It was uttered in response to        osity may foster social purposes           their understandings about
             someone else’s authentic pur-        among students for sharing tex-            the world give them reason to
             poses for asking a question and      tual ideas that they would not             decide what they think the text
             shaped the subsequent purposes       share otherwise.                           means.
             of that other person (the sudden         In this section, I will briefly   3.   Highlight puzzlement, ambigu-
             need to be able to identify black    explain several ways I have seen           ity, and differences of opinion.
             widows). Providing a response to     teachers act upon their curios-            The teacher points out places
             the tourist’s question had varied    ity about student thinking during          where the text might appear
             potential consequences that the      conversations about text. Such             ambiguous, and may adopt a
             Texan had to consider as she for-    teaching may facilitate compre-            stance of puzzlement about the
             mulated that response: the deci-     hension-as-sense-making, though            text’s meaning. The teacher
             sion making about what to say        these ways are not to be taken             may draw students’ attention
             mattered socially.                   as a formula—teaching compre-              to differences of opinion about
                 I argue that textual decision    hension-as-sense-making can-               textual meaning that exist in
             making should matter socially,       not be reduced to a procedure. I           the group, or to different under-
             too—ideally in ways that extend      have called the orientation toward         standings that others outside
             far beyond whether or not the        teaching I describe here shared            their peer circle might have
             teacher approves of an answer.       evaluation pedagogy (Aukerman,             reached about the same text.
             If we want students to make rea-     2006), or SHEP, because it is not
                                                  simply the teacher who decides        4.   Open up spaces. The teacher
             soned decisions about textual                                                   opens up spaces for students to
             meaning, ones that are atten-        what a text means and evalu-
                                                  ates claims made about the text:           share their thinking by inviting
             tive to their own purposes and to                                               students into the conversation,
             the purposes of others, then they    the students work together with
                                                  each other and with the teacher to         particularly the quieter ones.
             need opportunities to have their                                                The teacher may also ask stu-
             hypothesizing matter. We need to     share in that deciding and evalu-
                                                  ating. These are six acts of teach-        dents to respond to an idea that
             work toward conversations where                                                 has been voiced by a peer.
             students see themselves and their    ing that characterize SHEP:
             peers as contributors of new ideas                                         5.   Hold back. SHEP is charac-
                                                  1. Follow student ideas. If stu-           terized by stretches of talk
             that shape the subsequent course        dents’ social purposes for shar-
             of discussion—and each other’s                                                  where the teacher is nearly
                                                     ing hypotheses are to matter,           silent while the students talk
             views about the text’s meaning.         the flow of the conversation            with each other; when the
                                                     must be meaningfully contin-            teacher does speak, s/he often
             Teaching toward                         gent on the things students say
             Comprehension-as-Sense-                                                         does so to draw attention to (or
                                                     rather than aimed at a teach-           seek clarification about) ideas
             Making                                  er’s highly specific predeter-          already raised by students. The
             I propose that one of the most          mined agenda. SHEP involves             teacher does not consistently
             important things a teacher can          asking students to elaborate on         respond after each student turn,
             do to cultivate comprehension-          their thinking, what Nystrand           and instead waits to see how
             as-sense-making is to adopt a           (1997) calls uptake. It may             students respond to each other.


LA_Sept2008.indd 57                                                                                                        7/28/08 11:04:49 AM
6. Share evaluation. The teacher      To me, I think there’s two ways        ambiguity—to explain it to Ms.
  Research Directions

                           resists evaluating a student’s     to think about that and I’m not        Haven, to explain it to each other,
                           textual hypothesis as right or     sure which one they mean. When         to explain it to themselves—
                           wrong—even when a student          it says—if you follow with your        emerged as a purpose for thinking
                           expresses a nonstandard under-     eyes—“They have existed for mil-       about what the text was saying by
                           standing. Instead, the teacher     lions of years, yet have changed       “existed for millions of years.”
                           abdicates the exclusive author-    very little,” does that mean that      After the second time Ms. Haven
                           ity to decide what the text        the same exact spider has been         asked the question, José offered
                           means; students are encour-        alive for a million years, or does     a response indicating that he was
                           aged to elaborate, contest, and    that mean that this type of spider     beginning to explore an alterna-
                           extend their peers’ ideas.         has existed for that long? Like,       tive to his initial hypothesis, but
                                                              not one spider, but it had babies      was hedging his bets:
                        Enacting Shared                       and generations and generations.
                        Evaluation Pedagogy                   Which one is it?                           “I think it’s kind of both,
                        To provide an example of what             Jorge: The second one.             because the kind of spider can
                        SHEP can look like, I turn back                                              live for a million years and make,
                                                                  Teacher: How do you know?          produce, produce other spiders so
                        to José and his group’s discus-
                        sion of The Tarantula (McGinty,           Jorge: It said, like, they live    they can live for a long time.”
                        2002). Once a week, Ms. Haven         for a million years. So, like you
                                                              said, the generations have been        And when Ms. Haven followed
                        facilitated this nonfiction litera-
                                                              going on and on, so they live          up on this comment from José
                        ture discussion group; it included
                                                              for millions of years. I think the     by asking, pointblank, if spiders
                        three fourth-grade boys, all of
                                                              second one is better.                  could live for a million years,
                        whom had been designated as
                                                                  Teacher: So, it’s not the same     both José and Ned indicated alle-
                        “low readers” by their regu-
                                                              spider that lives for a million        giance to José’s initial “incorrect”
                        lar classroom teacher (not Ms.
                                                              years? I don’t know.                   hypothesis rather than to Jorge’s
                        Haven). José and Jorge were
                                                                                                     “correct” one:
                        Latino; Ned was European Amer-            When Ms. Haven highlighted
                        ican, as was Ms. Haven.               the ambiguity in wording and               Ned: Yes.
                            When José voiced his hypoth-      asked what it meant, this still            José: I think so, yes.
                        esis about spiders living for         could easily have been the begin-          Ned: They can.
                        millions of years, many teach-        ning of an I-R-E exchange, where
                                                              she solicited an answer she found          From the perspective of
                        ers would have stepped right in
                                                              acceptable, evaluated it, and then     comprehension-as-outcome, this
                        to correct him. Ms. Haven held
                                                              moved on. But her response to          exchange would seem to call
                        back, watching carefully to see
                                                              Jorge’s answer (“How do you            for finding an immediate way to
                        if other students would verbally
                                                              know?”) did not function in this       correct the flawed understand-
                        take issue with José’s idea. None
                                                              case to evaluate his response          ing; some teachers might even
                        did for awhile. A few minutes
   September 2008

                                                              as correct. (It was, I believe, an     call it a teachable moment. And
                        further into the discussion, Ms.
                                                              attempt to make his decision mak-      yet, after a few more ideas were
                        Haven returned to José’s hypoth-
                                                              ing visible.) Her expressed uncer-     raised, Ms. Haven simply asked
                        esis and highlighted textual ambi-
                                                              tainty, both in her initial question   Ned to continue reading. The
                        guity. Although she herself held
                                                                                                     nonstandard understanding was
   Vol. 86 ● No. 1 ●

                        a standard understanding of the       and in her repetition of the ques-
                                                              tion after Jorge’s explanation,        left uncorrected; this would con-
                        text, she did not explain that
                                                              kept the students’ decision mak-       stitute questionable teaching,
                        meaning. Instead, she noted two
                                                              ing about textual meaning cen-         from a strictly comprehension-as-
                        alternatives for what the text
                                                              tral: she was sharing evaluation       outcome perspective.
                        might mean and posed a ques-
                        tion. Here is an excerpt from that    with the students.                         Seen from the perspective of
                        transcript:                                                                  teaching toward comprehension-
   Language Arts ●

                                                                  Because she did not endorse
                                                              Jorge’s response, the students         as-sense-making, however, this
                            Teacher: That’s what I’m
                                                              could not count on Ms. Haven to        move was quite sensible. José
                        really confused about by this
                                                              resolve the ambiguity for them.        and Ned appeared satisfied with
                        line, and I need you guys’ help.
                                                              Working through the textual            their understandings of the text
                        This one: “They have existed.”

LA_Sept2008.indd 58                                                                                                                    7/28/08 11:04:49 AM
(as was Jorge, though of course             Ned: Ooh, ooh, I learned that      revised their understandings for

                                                                                                                                          Research Directions
             his view was different)—they did        tarantulas do not live a thousand      purposes that mattered to them.
             not, at the moment, have a pur-         years ‘cause I read, “Did you
             pose for making a different deci-       know?”                                 But What if Students
             sion about textual meaning. And,        Ned went on to read aloud the          Don’t Change Their
             since the words could be inter-         “Did you know?” sidebar that           Minds?
             preted either way, there was no         said, “In the United States, male      José and Ned changed their non-
             reading work that José and Ned          tarantulas almost always begin         standard understandings to ones
             could actively undertake at that        their search for female tarantu-       that were more standard, in light
             moment with that text, collabora-       las in the fall. The male taran-       of textual evidence. This is a
             tively or individually, that would      tulas usually die after mating”        happy ending, in the sense that
             be likely to cause them to change       (McGinty, 2002, p. 16).                comprehension-as-sense-making
             their hypothesis. Of course, the                                               took place and comprehension-
             teacher could have told them,               Teacher: So this was evidence
                                                     that what?                             as-outcome was the fortunate
             explained why Jorge’s read-                                                    result. Shared evaluation peda-
             ing was “right”—but then she                Ned: The tarantulas can’t live     gogy, then, can result in students
             would be doing the reading work,        for a thousand years.                  deciding on more standard under-
             the comprehension-as-sense-                 Teacher: Good way to use the       standings for themselves (cf.
             making, not them. So she left           clues from the book to solve your      Aukerman, 2007).
             it alone, with the disagreement         mystery. Yes, José.
             unresolved.                                                                        But, of course, it is not always
                                                         José: I know why it dies,          the case that students solve
                 The students went on to read        ‘cause it just said. I was reading     their “mysteries”—or that their
             and discuss other parts of the text;    and it said the female is almost       solutions at the end of a given
             among other things, this included       blind. So it doesn’t know, so it, so   discussion reflect standard under-
             a longer exchange in which, after       it defends herself and it kills the    standings. What if José and Ned
             initially hypothesizing that silk       male.                                  had left the classroom that day
             glands were where the spider                                                   still believing that a single spi-
             “gets its food” (Ned), the students         A full 20 minutes after the
                                                     uncertainty was left on the table,     der can live for a million years? I
             eventually used textual evidence                                               argue that this would not negate
             to decide that “maybe instead of        the boys were still engaged in a
                                                     process of textual decision mak-       the purposeful textual hypoth-
             storing food, they store their, like,                                          esizing the students did during
             silk” in the silk glands (Ned). The     ing about it. Not only that—Ned
                                                     was actively searching the text        this lesson as they used the text
             issue of how long tarantulas live                                              to respond to each other’s under-
             did not reappear until about 20         for evidence that would confirm
                                                     or disconfirm his early hypoth-        standings, to explain their own
             minutes later, shortly before the                                              reasoning, to consider multiple
             end of the session.                     esis. Even though the text did
                                                     not directly talk about life span      possibilities, and to present them-
                 Because there was little time       of spiders, he used the available      selves as certain kinds of people.
             left, Ms. Haven gave the boys           information about the male taran-      Comprehension-as-sense-making
             the option of silently reading one      tulas dying to extrapolate that        would still have taken place, even
             of several pages they had not yet       they were unlikely to live for a       if students had never reached a
             read; each boy chose to read the        very long time. Both he and José       standard understanding.
             same page, which described the          now understood that tarantulas             I do not mean to suggest
             tarantula’s mating practices. After     (at least the males!) did not live     that there is no time or place
             they had done so, the teacher           a million years. Just as impor-        for explicit explanation. Some-
             began opening spaces with an            tant, they were able to use the        times communicating content
             open-ended question:                    textual evidence to present them-      will be more important than fos-
                 Teacher: Think about what           selves socially as certain kinds of    tering comprehension-as-sense-
             you want to tell me. So, who            people—knowledgeable ones (“I          making. And, in conversations
             wants to say something about            know why it dies”) and textually       where comprehension-as-sense-
             what this page means? I didn’t          thorough (“‘cause I read ‘Did you      making is the norm, a teacher
             get a chance to read it.                know?’”). They had tested and          may well be able to explain some


LA_Sept2008.indd 59                                                                                                            7/28/08 11:04:49 AM
important aspect of the text with-     comprehension-as-sense-making,            Aukerman, M. (2007). When reading it
  Research Directions

                                                                                                         wrong is getting it right: Shared evalu-
                        out undermining the dynamic            so he frequently asks himself this        ation pedagogy among struggling fifth-
                        that keeps student decision mak-       question: Is today the last time          grade readers. Research in the Teaching
                        ing about textual meaning central      my students will ever think or            of English, 42, 56–103.

                        overall. But I believe that sub-       read about this particular mate-          Dyson, A. (1999). Transforming transfer:
                                                                                                         Unruly children, contrary text, and the
                        stantial letting go of the need for    rial, or encounter these textual          persistence of the pedagogical order.
                        students to always arrive at the       conventions? If it is, then perhaps       In A. Iran-Nejad & P. D. Pearson (Eds.),
                                                                                                         Review of research in education: Vol. 24
                        “correct” understanding is prereq-     the details I’m sweating here are         (pp. 141–171). Washington, D.C.: AERA.
                        uisite to a pedagogy that fosters      not so important. If it is not, there     Fiene, J., & McMahon, S. (2007). Assess-
                        comprehension-as-sense-making.         may well be another opportunity           ing comprehension: A classroom-based
                        The textual hypothesizing that         on another day for students to            process. The Reading Teacher, 60,
                        took place with José, Ned, and         hypothesize actively, to work with
                                                                                                         McGinty, A. B. (2002). The tarantula.
                        Jorge would likely not have taken      related texts and each other’s            New York: Rosen Publishing Group.
                        place if the teacher had stepped       ideas about those texts—for them          Mehan, H. (1982). The structure of class-
                        in, again and again, to make sure      to move toward understandings             room events and their consequences for
                        they were getting it “right.” Fig-     closer to my own, if that is impor-       student performance. In P. Gilmore &
                                                                                                         A. A. Glatthorn (Eds.), Children in and
                        uring things out often involves        tant (M. Vélez, personal commu-           out of school (59–87). Washington, D.C.:
                        a number of missteps and blind         nication, May 2007). There will           Center for Applied Linguistics.
                        alleys: these are not irrelevant       be another day, that is, if students      Nystrand, M. (1997). Opening dia-
                        and unproductive detours, but          continue to encounter classroom           logue: Understanding the dynamics of
                                                                                                         language and learning in the English
                        rather an integral part of the deci-   opportunities to actively decide          classroom. New York: Teachers College
                        sion making that constitutes           what texts mean—for themselves            Press.
                        comprehension-as-sense-making.         and with each other.                      Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. (1984).
                                                                                                         Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-
                            I acknowledge that it is enor-                                               fostering and comprehension-monitor-
                        mously difficult to hold one’s         Author’s Note: I thank Monica Bel-        ing activities. Cognition and Instruction,
                                                                                                         1, 117–175.
                        tongue when students reveal non-       fatti for her wise feedback and her
                                                               generosity in sharing data used in        RAND Reading Study Group. (2002).
                        standard understandings, espe-                                                   Reading for understanding: Toward a
                        cially when just a few words           this article; Diane Santori for her       research and development program in
                                                               provocative ideas on the relationship     reading comprehension. Arlington, VA:
                        would seemingly clear things up.                                                 RAND.
                                                               between agency and comprehension;
                        I recently asked a teacher I know      and Paige Ware and Jessica Zacher         Rumelhart, D. E. (1981). Schemata:
                        to explain how he is able to think     for helping me see new possibilities      The building blocks of cognition. In J.
                        past the intuitive tendency to cor-    and purposes as I revised.                T. Guthrie (Ed.), Comprehension and
                                                                                                         teaching: Research reviews (pp. 3–26).
                        rect every nonstandard under-                                                    Newark, DE: International Reading
                        standing when he structures                                                      Association.
                        classroom conversations around         References                                Santori, D. (2006, December). Children’s
                        shared evaluation pedagogy.                                                      individual response styles across partici-
                                                               Anderson, R., & Pearson, P. D. (1984).    pation structures. Paper presented at
                            It is hard, he says, not to get    A schema-theoretic view of basic
   September 2008

                                                                                                         the National Reading Conference, Los
                                                               processes in reading comprehension.       Angeles, CA.
                        caught up in an emphasis on            In P. D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. Kamil, &
                        “right” answers, particularly          P. Mosenthal (Eds.), The handbook of
                                                               reading research: Vol. 1 (pp. 255–291).
                        in a standards-driven envi-            New York: Longman.
                        ronment that privileges teach-         Aukerman, M. (2006). Who’s afraid of
                                                                                                          Maren Aukerman is assistant pro-
   Vol. 86 ● No. 1 ●

                        ing comprehension-as-outcome.                                                     fessor at Stanford University, Palo
                                                               the big ‘bad answer’? Educational Lead-
                                                                                                          Alto, California.
                        But he believes in the value of        ership, 64(2), 37–41.
   Language Arts ●


LA_Sept2008.indd 60                                                                                                                              7/28/08 11:04:50 AM
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