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 June 2002
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Written by
Sally Ann Flecker

Photograph by
Ric Evans





From basic science to classroom practices, Pitt researchers dissect how children learn to read. Educational programs based on their work are already in place of hundreds of public schools throughout the nation.

Isabel Beck and colleague Margaret McKeown (Ric Evans photo)

Reading Between
the Lines

A new way to teach reading just might start here in this elementary school auditorium where the kindergarten teachers from 56 schools in the Pittsburgh School District[*] begin to settle into their seats on a rainy Friday morning. It’s an in-service day. This morning many of these teachers will get their first taste of a program that takes the most routine and beloved kindergarten practice—reading stories aloud—and ratchets up its role in literacy development. The program, Text Talk, is like a storybook turbocharged. This is the beginning of implementation in all of the city kindergartens. Next year, the program will be adopted by all the city’s first and second grades as well.

As teachers mill around in the narrow lobby, greeting friends and helping themselves to coffee and donuts, Isabel Beck sits by herself on a bench along the sidelines and watches, almost meditatively. It is an unusual moment. Beck—a professor in the School of Education and a senior scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)—is seldom still in either thought or action. She, along with her research partner Margaret McKeown, comprises the central intelligence behind Text Talk. In addition to Text Talk, Beck and her research group have three other major endeavors being implemented in elementary and middle schools here and across the country. Like Text Talk, the other endeavors—Word Building, Bringing Words to Life, and Questioning the Author—are all responsive to the problems and skills a child must master in learning to read and comprehend. (Bringing Words to Life, a book written and developed with McKeown and Linda Kucan, is hot off the presses.) The programs, built on solid cognitive research, are smart and sensible. Even better, kids and teachers enjoy them.

The donuts and coffee were delivered a little late, which has pushed back Beck’s presentation by 15 or 20 minutes. Teachers stream along, picking up their thick packet of workshop materials.

McKeown, a research scientist at LRDC, will share presentation responsibilities with Beck. (The research partners also received their PhDs in Education at Pitt; Beck in 1973 and McKeown in 1983.)

Right now, McKeown is over at the registration desk, checking that everything is moving along smoothly. Beck could run over her notes, but she really doesn’t need to. She knows what she has to say as though it was the story of her life. In fact, she has lived it—spending considerable time in the classroom, early on in her career, as a teacher herself. Recently, she was named the recipient of the 2002 William S. Gray Award by the International Reading Association for her outstanding contributions to the field of reading. The award, in particular, pointed to the way that Beck’s original ideas have not only increased understanding of the reading process, but improved the actual practice of how reading is taught.

Not everyone in the largely female audience of 150 is new to Text Talk. One teacher, part of the pilot study, sees Beck and rushes up to her with excitement. She recounts to Beck the experience she had recently reading the classic storybook Curious George to her students.

“They said, ‘He likes bananas,’” she tells Beck, laughing. (Beck later explains that the teacher is referring to a prediction about how children will answer an early question about the story.) She tells Beck how the Text Talk program has changed the interactions in her classroom. She’s sold on it. Now she wants to champion its cause to other teachers. Whatever you need, she tells Beck now. However I can help.

Walk into any kindergarten in the United States at storytime. The kids sit in a circle on the floor, around the teacher reading the story, squirming and wriggling and waving their hands wildly when the teacher asks a question. Encouraging kindergartners to participate never seems to be a problem.

But Beck and McKeown discovered there is a critical flaw to this scenario. Children understand contextualized language just fine. That is they can talk about what’s in front of them or what they experience—a show they watched on television, what they did at Grandma’s house.

It’s what the researchers call decontextualized language that’s the challenge. A story in a book tells about events not in the here and now; children don’t get to see it with their own eyes, hear it with their own ears. Understanding a story—building meaning—from decontextualized language, from the words on a page, is a fundamental step in reading. It’s a different step than learning, in the mix and match of ABCs, where c-a-t spells cat. Rather, this is the step that teaches children how to create coherence from a text, teaches them how to figure out what the words add up to and how the ideas are connected. It’s a step that becomes increasingly challenging the higher up the reading ladder a student climbs.

Now this is not news to a kindergarten teacher. “But here’s the kicker,” says Beck, who researched Text Talk for three-and-a-half years. “It’s not just reading to kids that will do the trick. It’s prompting kids to talk about the story ideas.”

And that, it turns out, is an amazingly slippery task—as slippery, in fact, as the bananas in Curious George. Children listen to the beginning of a story describing George as a good little monkey who lived in the zoo and was very curious about what was going on outside the zoo. When the teacher asked, “What do we know about George so far?” they answered, “He likes bananas.” He may, but the story doesn’t say so.

This kind of response is typical in kindergartners. Rather than build meaning from the story, they will tend to draw it from associations they can make from their own experiences. Time and time again, Beck and McKeown saw in their observations that children miss the point of stories. And if they miss the point, they’re missing the chance to build an idea based only on language. That’s a skill that will become increasingly important as they learn to read and as they are challenged all the way through school to become more sophisticated readers.

In the elementary school auditorium, Beck wins over her audience of kindergarten teachers when she tells them that her last teaching assignment was for one of the city’s kindergarten classes. Then she confesses that the first time she went back to kindergarten to teach—testing Text Talk principles—she didn’t sleep the night before. She knows the challenge of being a kindergarten teacher—and the importance.

With a gaze that seems to take in every member of the audience, Beck begins to explain how to get students to build meaning from what’s in the story. First, work with stories that have some meat to them—books like Caps for Sale, Make Way for Ducklings, or Harry the Dirty Dog—where the characters must grapple with a complicated situation or problem. Children, as they talk about these stories, can explore ideas and use language to explain ideas—an opportunity that doesn’t spring from the reading of a caption book, for instance.

Beck points out several other elements. But the practice at the heart of Text Talk is the skillful asking of open-ended questions. “Children are used to giving one-word answers,” she tells the audience. “Kids are excited, they want to answer, they’re happy. They’re not developing, but they’re happy.”

Here’s an example of a traditional storytime exchange between teacher and class:

Teacher: Harry likes everything, except what?

Child: A bath.

Now an example of an open-ended question based on Text Talk principles:

Teacher: How does what Harry did fit in with what we already know about him?

Child: He doesn’t really want to get clean, he just wants to stay dirty.

In the first example, the child merely repeats what was heard; in the second, the child interprets rather than recites.

Beck wraps up her overview of Text Talk by cautioning that productive student-teacher discussions will not happen immediately. It takes practice by the students and the teachers. Part of the morning is scheduled to coach the teachers on strategies for designing questions that encourage children to give more than one-word answers and to connect together their ideas.

Next, though, McKeown takes the stage. She brings with her a storybook, Six Dinners for Sid, and before the teachers realize what is happening, they’re in the middle of an actual demonstration of how a Text Talk read-aloud works.

The story is about a cat who tricks six different neighbors into thinking he belongs to each of them. He answers to six different names, has six different ways of behaving, and every night, gets to eat six different dinners. All is well with the con until Sid gets sick one day and is taken to the same vet six different times. The vet catches on to the scam.

At different intervals in the story, McKeown stops to ask questions about what is happening and what it means. Each time, hands go up in the air; there is laughter at the twists and turns of the story. At the end McKeown says, “Let’s talk about how things turned out pretty well for Sid, but how they might not have.”

Throughout the auditorium, the teachers enjoy parsing out the implications. How good it feels to delve into a story won’t be lost on them. That offer of support Beck received earlier outside the auditorium—well, she’s not going to need help convincing this group to give Text Talk a fair shot.

Beck and McKeown’s approach is evident when peeking in on classes at Pittsburgh’s Minadeo Elementary School. Take Amy Stana’s fifth-grade language arts students. They are chewing on the story of a brilliant but unathletic girl who decides to become a marble shooter. Stana is trained in Beck and McKeown’s Questioning the Author (QtA), another innovative program being implemented in schools throughout several states. QtA was originally sparked by the researchers’ investigation into coherence in social studies textbooks. The signature of QtA, like the K-2 Text Talk, centers on skilled, open-ended questioning, which generates a full-bodied discussion.

Denise Yates, Minadeo’s principal, remembers a meeting five years ago with her instructional team leaders: “We talked about how we could make the standards higher in the classrooms, how we could have a better classroom discourse. We went round and round and it finally came down to one thing—we had to learn how to ask better questions.”

Last year, before QtA became part of the initiative, she contracted with Beck’s group (through the University) to train 11 of her teachers. “It’s amazing the level of thinking that’s going on,” Yates says.

“The teachers have grown tremendously. Children are thinking and challenging the texts they’re reading.” Her teachers tell her they know immediately which children were exposed to QtA last year. “They say it’s very obvious. They’re willing to risk and talk, explain their thoughts and back them up with why.”

The results are showing up in the testing of students schooled in QtA. “I have had some outside evaluators do class follow-ups,” says Yates. “The students’ reading scores have gone up.”

Rebecca Hamilton, the Pittsburgh Public Schools senior program officer for the Literacy Plus program, expects Text Talk to provide similar results. “We just finished training our teachers and it’s remarkable what it’s done. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

Hamilton and Yates note it’s too early in the evaluation process to cite specific numbers. Clearly, though, they like what they have seen so far.

As students in Stana’s class take turns reading out loud, shoring up their facility in identifying words, the others lean on their elbows or hang over their books so low that their noses almost touch the pages. Whatever their reading pose, when it comes time to talk about a short section they’ve just read, they come alive. One leans back into his chair, mulling the story over. Another’s hand shoots into the air. They talk about how doing push-ups will prepare the would-be marble contender. A boy with an inscrutable face discusses whether the character is feeling proud of herself, or confident, or both.

By the end of the story, when all of the character’s hard work pays off, they’re feeling pretty proud of her—and themselves—as well. And that’s a moment that Beck and McKeown can read loud and clear.

—Sally Ann Flecker is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of this magazine.

*—Denotes an external link. Links to external Web sites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.


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