“It’s magic,” a teacher I was working with recently declared after a reading conference we co-taught with one of her kindergarteners. David is in his second year in kindergarten. He works with a speech therapist and an occupational therapist, and as a reader, he had been struggling to get off the ground. While he could decode a level D book accurately and remember any given page, -- as the teacher described his comprehension— “something's missing. He’s just not getting it.” The teacher’s goals for David were to increase his engagement and to get him to think more deeply about the story events.
We sat with David as he read Lost Feathers by Bruce Larkin. From the cover and title, readers could glean that a bird was in the sky dropping feathers. But inside the book, there was no bird to be seen. Stray feathers were landing on the ground in increments on every page, but the skyline was out of view.
Not surprisingly, David's decoding was perfect. "I see one feather./ I see two feathers..." When we asked him to stop after a few pages to retell, David repeated the story events almost verbatim, but with no mention of that bird on the cover. How did those feathers get on the ground? David had no idea and didn't seem concerned by our line of questioning.
With the research phase of our conference done, David’s teacher and I put our heads together. While our primary goal was that David would become more engaged as a reader, we talked about how difficult it must be to lean in to texts if you only see them as a series of pages bound together. So we jumped in to teaching David a strategy to help him comprehend his books more deeply, so that he might enjoy them more. Using a much simpler text, David’s teacher demonstrated how she might stop after every few pages and look back at the cover while wondering, “How does this page go with the title?” When it was David’s turn to try the strategy in Lost Feathers, he broke out into a grin, “Oh, the bird is losing feathers!” Synapsis were firing. “He’s gonna be bald-headed!” David laughed out loud and then peeked at the last page to confirm his prediction.
We might have stopped there--and we certainly could have congratulated ourselves for getting David to engage, predict, monitor and infer in this book--but I wanted to make sure we had some indication of the likelihood of David trying this strategy on his own. “Ok, David, so what book are you going to read next?" He picked one from his pile, and we continued. "So, can you tell us what you are going to do to help you enjoy it more?” David glanced at the little visual reminder of the strategy his teacher had sketched on a sticky note. He paused for a while, and his teacher and I held our breath. He said, tentatively at first, “I’m gonna start to read and then stop to think about the title.” I can flip back like this and then talk about how (the cover) goes with (the middle).”
It was a successful conference, and I think it made a difference in how David experiences books. But it wasn’t magic because magic is something that happens spontaneously and mysteriously. David’s teacher and I had been working together on conferring for two months. We had studied text levels, and articulated goals for individuals, and practiced making concise visuals, and worked on repeating clear teaching points until we felt like broken records. Conferring is an undertaking that requires tremendous work and deep study and a daily risk of failure; but when it goes well, we are able to change the way our students read. Which is magical, but not magic.