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Ellin Oliver Keene

Barry Lane

Below are the transcripts from my live chats, on September 1st and July 7th, 1999, with Ellin Oliver Keene, author of Mosaic of Thought, Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. For more information on this title, click on the book's cover. Then, use your browser's back button to return here to continue reading. If you decide to join our group, send an email to me at readinglady1@aol.com.
by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman
See what the author had to say about this remarkable book.
Use this link to view the transcript from out July 7th chat.

July 7th Transcript

 dnteach - Ellin, I am in the middle of a schema study with fourth graders...can you suggest ways to move them towards independence in activating prior knowledge?

ellin - We really are looking for three signs of independence. First, are they able to apply their use of the strategy in several genres. . i.e. nonfiction, poetry, newspaper, etc.

Second, can they "hold" their thinking (use of schema) to share with others, like can they use post it notes to jot down places where they made a connection, can they share their thinking in a book club, etc.; and third, can they really articulate HOW using the strategy helps them understand what they are reading more deeply.

What we've found is that we need to model, think aloud in all three of those areas and ask them to gradually assume responsibility for each, but the critical factor in getting them there is the modeling.

dnteach - We are finding the modeling very powerful--I am considering having a log of sorts for them to record their thinking...any thoughts?

ellin - Great idea --- we get those large (36" x 22") artists' sketchbooks and record the class' thinking for a sort of public record of the think alouds (ours and theirs) and the kids use them to refer to later. They also make great records of the teaching and the discussions for parents to peruse when they come for conferences, etc.

Also, the kids keep track by group (fours usually) where they sit -- the teams then share the evidence of their thinking --- i.e. use of the strategy --- with the whole class. They try to out do each other in relation to proving how they used the strategy but really need to make them defend how using the strategy helped them comprehend more deeply.

dnteach - I think that is the piece we are struggling with now, but yes thank you. I mean defending their thoughts...

ellin - We find that they mimic our thinking aloud for several weeks until they really internalize it and begin to apply the strategy spontaneously and purposefully --- two other signals of real independence. What else are you all wondering about/struggling with?

rhorlando - I think students in general aren't used to defending their thinking. Too often they've just learned to spout out an answer without thinking about HOW they knew it. I'm struggling with it in math too.

ellin - It's fabulous that you're thinking about applications to math. I really think I may have something that will help you with that. We've generated student outcomes for each of the strategies for reading, math, writing and research that we are finding extremely useful in integrating the language of strategy instruction across the curriculum. We're actually finding that integration around strategies is more helpful that topical or theme based integration. I'm happy to share that document with anyone who emails me ---eokeene@pebc.org.

rhorlando - My biggest concern is time. I find that once we get going on a discussion, it's hard to stop! Any suggestions?

ellin - Yikes! I'm the wrong one to ask. . . . I have the same problem. My best suggestion is to remember that you don't have to be a part of every conversation. Let them talk in pairs, trios, book clubs and talk on paper. The juicy discussions are usually juicy for a few kids and a great model for the others, but they can get too long. It's my favorite part though and I really think the oral language experience is vital, especially when it is that purposeful and focused.

dnteach - Have you looked at any way to "shorten" the reading inventory (can't remember the call letters) from the appendix?

ellin - On the MPIR. Yes, two options. First, we give it as a written instrument for older kids. You can use passages that are graded or their own, more authentic text depending on your purpose and ask the kids to read and instead of thin aloud, write their thinking, then go through the questions and they each respond in writing to the text they are reading.

For the younger kids for whom we give it orally, just do the think aloud portion at the beginning and only give the strategy questions that relate to the strategy you're about to teach.

Do the same thing at the end of the strategy study and use the rubric to score both. Then you have a nice little pre/post assessment. You can really do it that way in about the time it takes to have a conference with a kid.

I also tell teachers, if you want to give it in its entirety to each kid orally (that is the best data for sure) then give yourself a break and give the pre assessments between the start of school and, say November and give the post assessments in April and May. Whoever said we had to assess all the kids at the same moment?

dnteach - I am glad you said that...I am trying to get the teachers to consider using it...didn't want to scare them with it's length. ;-)

ellin - You still get great pre/post growth and when you're assessing thinking, hey, it's a little more complex than giving them a standardized test. A lot more useful, too.

Laura - Ellin, now that I am finally here. I'd love to talk about your experience in Char's classroom -- the whole ownership issue. I just got through with two days of workshops on powerful learning and I saw a definite connection to what you were discussing in that chapter.

ellin - Char is fascinating. She, by her own description, is extremely literal and wanted every detail and every step to take immediately. This just isn't that kind of teaching. I did a whole lot of demonstration teaching in that room while she was in first grade. Then she wanted to know how it would be different in second. It's not that the teaching is different, it's that we watch the children differently and of course use different text to meet their needs.

laura - There are so many like that. How can we make this transition comfortable? What type of framework do you suggest? For example, follow the layout of your book -- start with metacognition then build on that to the connections?

ellin - Interesting --- we've tried every possible configuration and most do start that way.

laura - Have any configurations worked better?

ellin - There is no hierarchy, no specific way that we've found more useful than others. What matters is that you focus for many weeks on a single strategy. That's been the hardest thing for the teachers to get used to.

laura - No timeframe then either. What are the best indications that they are ready for more?

ellin - The focus is amazing for the kids, though. When they are 10 or 12 weeks into a strategy study the level of comprehension is extraordinary. I talked about that a little earlier, while you were floating around in cyberspace, but basically it's a matter of having the kids articulate how using the strategy helps them comprehend more deeply, proving that they use the strategy purposefully as well as spontaneously and using the strategy across genres. It is very subjective that way, but you can also use the MPIR to measure more objectively when they've made a jump up a rubric or two.

dnteach - Ellin, can you make suggestions for coaching teachers in strategy studies...you've talked about moving kids to independence...how can we help teachers do the same in their teaching?

ellin - Well, this is of course what my organization does and I was telling our new staff developers just today that the frustration can sometimes parallel the frustration of trying to get into a chat room . By far the most effective strategy is demonstration. We are in classrooms teaching which permits teachers to see their own kids respond to strategy use and uniformly. They want to get their kids to think like that so we try to show them in microcosm through demonstration teaching.

We also create lab classrooms that teachers visit for up to six days over the course of the year, watching strategy instruction unfold and that is highly effective, particularly when the teacher can go back and have a coach to support them in their classrooms.

rhorlando - Where are the lab classrooms? Can we visit too?

ellin - You can!!! We love to have visitors and if you email jhendricks@pebc.org she will let you know about planned week long (3 or 4 days) when we open our labs up only to visitors from around the country. If those days don't work though we have teachers and staff developers who work all the time with visitors especially if they are staff developers who want to help others when they go back. Just contact Judy at that email address and she will set something up. I'm delighted to meet with visiting groups and my staff is as well. They are amazing people doing great things in classrooms. They inspire me every day.

laura - Can you talk a bit about the work in prek and k using these ideas? We have several k teachers that are interested in hearing about that.

ellin - Much of it is done through read alouds/think alouds and the development of the little guy's listening comprehension. For example, we use fairly sophisticated text --- in relation to the ideas I mean ---read aloud and model our thinking. Then we ask them to pay attention to their own, say, questions, and show us through pictures, hand signals, skits, conversations, etc. what they are thinking. You cannot believe what they are able to do, well you probably can believe it, but they are incredibly sophisticated and creative in their language and thinking.

booksnfood - Do have any favorite titles that have worked really well for this age group?

ellin - I love to use the Cynthia Rylant favorites, I love Wild Wild Sunflower Child Anna and other books like that that have interesting language and some ideas the kids can really chew on. I love to use the great Judith Viorst books with little guys and I'm really learning to use more nonfiction. We have had great success with wordless picture books --- the only thing that isn't as effective is that really decodable text that they need to read for other types of practice --- not too many inferences in Mrs. Wishy Washy if you know what I mean!!!

laura - Perfect oppty to tell you we are now reading Stephanie Harvey's book, Nonfiction Matters.

ellin - Steph is a dear friend and has been a colleague for many years. She taught me to branch out more in Non fiction reading and writing and the result has been phenomenal.

laura - There are similarities to yours in the writing style of her book - I was happy to find it. Here is the link for more information on this title -

NonFiction Matters, by Stephanie Harvey

ellin - Talk about voice ---she's the best.

laura - Are these ideas being adopted in your area by entire schools? I think the consistency is an important issue here.

ellin - Great point. Fortunately, the answer is yes and though it is terrific for kids even if there is one teacher in one classroom working on the depth of thinking implied in the strategies, the result is obviously much better in schools where there is uniformity of purpose with great artistry and diversity in implementation. Come see us, there is no way to describe how wonderful I think the teachers are--- kids who weren't expected to thrive ARE! and that is revising all our notions of high expectations. I think we all gave lip service to having high expectations before, the kids have helped us to utterly redefine high expectations.

There are many schools actually -- from inner city Denver to affluent cherry creek, but the one place I'm thinking of is a very low income school in Jefferson CNty, of Columbine infamy.

laura - How do the kids in your area doing on the standardized test measures?

ellin - Yipee! Finally some progress in that arena. We are definitely correlating data from instruments such as the MPIR and our state standards assessment ( a nightmare) and standardized tests. We are seeing a clear correlation in nearly every school. Anyone who tells you that their "program" can bring about test score improvement does not understand research. Buyer beware!

ceci - I need to share the number of years you have collected data.

ellin - Ceci, we did a seven year study and are beginning a new one now. It's very expensive to assess student growth with integrity and I have to raise every $ but I'm happy to send you the most recent year's data.

booksnfood - What about the role of fluency and comprehension?

ellin - Great question. Our read of the research says they develop simultaneously and therefore need to be addressed simultaneously in primary classrooms. Until they become fluent in text with sophisticated ideas we are doing a lot through listening comprehension. In that way they can practice decoding in decodable text and be exposed to rich interesting text with comprehension challenges.

booksnfood - Define decodable text ;)

ellin - Decodable text --- text that is 80% decodable for a given child --- a very gross estimate, but we think of it as text in which kids can decode 80 - 90% of the words and text that is appropriate to read and reread until they feel successful and fluent in reading it silently and to a friend.

We're surprised though at the incredible inferences they make in some really pretty lame text!!! We're pretty sure the author didn't intend the subtleties these kids are articulating!

Laura - So you have two different reading workshops at that level - one through listening and one to develop reading fluency - in the same day. Or do you begin with a read aloud and then move to them reading related text on their level?

ellin - Laura, Yes there are opportunities each day in our early primary classrooms to engage in high level listening comprehension and practice independently and in pairs or small groups in decodable text.

laura - Good. I also liked your chart that shows the level of teacher direction high and then dropping off as the students levels are increasing.

ellin - Yes, that's critical. Gradually we're releasing responsibility to the child to show (defend) independent, flexible and adaptive use of the strategy.

laura - I think gradual is a good point too. Too many times we think we don't have to directly teach them, just let them learn it. We do need to model and the think aloud is really powerful.

ellin - Yep! and we take responsibility for modeling and thinking aloud throughout in a wide variety of genres. That part never really diminishes.

ceci - Would you give an example of high level listening comprehension?

ellin - Ceci, I mean that we're using interesting books with complex ideas, Eve Bunting's books come to mind and engaging the kids in conversations about their thinking in the whole group or in small groups and pairs, etc.

laura - Ellin - I can't thank you enough for being such a good sport tonight. I appreciate your efforts to get here and stay beyond the call of duty. Your book is such an inspiration to so many of us. The enthusiasm is high and many are looking to get started with the ideas.

ellin - You're more than welcome. Use my email anytime and let me know how it goes. Just let me know when you want to do this again and I'll have a computer expert by my side.


Laura - Hi Ellin and welcome to our chat on Mosaic of Thought. Glad you made it.

ellin - Hi everyone, I so appreciate your interest in Mosaic and in the brilliant work of our teachers in this area and around the country. I have caught a couple of your questions and comments through the list serve ---- they were great, but perhaps, Laura, you should just share the questions you have.

Laura - The format of Mosaic is unlike any other professional development book we have read to date. Tell us about the writing process of this book, and how you chose the format.

ellin - A bit out of synch I guess! The book was pure pleasure to write after suffering with it in my head for 10 years! I was walking the dog one afternoon and realized (aha!!) that the format should include ample opportunity for teachers to rediscover their own comprehension processes as they read with an eye to what they might do in the classroom. Susan is an attorney and so a fine writer and editor herself and after I wrote, she barraged me with questions and helped me tighten and tighten and lift out the "education-ese" We wrote in her wonderful writing studio in the foothills west of Denver and she basically kept me planted in the chair writing and occasionally gave me permission to get up for a moment --- they called her "iron butt" in law school --- it worked!

Laura - Many of us are early grade teachers. We have discussed the implications of Mosaic in our classrooms. How do you see Mosaic being implemented in early childhood classrooms?

ellin - Well of course, this is a six year long response and the poor individual who thinks she has a frozen screen will really be kept waiting on this. I know it is hard to believe, but the work with primary children is actually deeper quicker as there is so much less unlearning of what comprehension is for them. We find that most of the instruction happens in the form of listening comprehension with the teacher modeling by thinking aloud in text that is (for some) not decodable. Comprehension does not come after decoding, they develop simultaneously. So, while the kids may be practicing their decoding in text at their level, the teacher is spending time every day modeling in very complex, abstract, even symbolic text and showing them --- even the kinders --- exactly how a proficient reader comprehends.

Laura - As a follow up, does it surprise you that most readers feel this book is geared towards upper grade students? Was that your intention when you wrote?

ellin - It's funny, because so many of the classroom teachers about whom I wrote in the early chapters especially, were k and 1st grade teachers. I have a theory about this --- many of us have an outdated definition of comprehension --- we really don't go much further than --- does this make sense? retell what you remember. .. do you understand this detail or that concept? when we talk to kids. This work implies a much deeper probing of the concepts, ideas and images that lie far below the "do you understand this level. I think that a lot of teachers may believe that the symbolic arena is the domain of the older child and adult. We have found that in fact (as so many of you as primary teachers realize) that the imagination and symbolic life of the young child is the perfect place to begin to explore deep levels of comprehension. They are less inhibited and less afraid to explore abstract ideas. We get the most absolutely amazing stuff from kids in the early primary grades.

Laura - What modifications does the early grade teacher need to make when introducing your ideas?

ellin - I think that it really is in making enough time in each day to devote to your instruction and practice in working with words and your time to think aloud and let them talk to each other about the comprehension strategy you are currently teaching. I have seen children working with text in pairs and small groups where one or more of the children is reading more sophisticated words, helping each other read and explore the comprehension strategy.

Laura - There was much discussion about the role of visualizing in comprehension. Do you feel that we need to teach children how to visualize in order to deepend their comprehension? How do you define visualizing ? Many see it as the ability to form pictures in the mind.

ellin - Yes. I observed with interest your recent conversation about visualizing. I feel it is much more accurately represented as creating sensory images --- including and possibly most importantly emotional images. I did not give this adequate attention in Mosaic, but recent brain research on learning and memory has persuaded me of the importance of emotional images ... the role of remembered emotions in comrpehending. Many in your list serve believed that they did not visualize as they read. This may well be true in some texts in which they are not challenged. When reading text, the images -- from all senses and the emotions --- that a reader spontaneously and purposefully generates, are actually used by the reader to deepen comprehension. I therefore think it is terribly important to teach sensory images.

Laura - So you think we can read without forming a visualization, and more importantly comprehend?

ellin - Laura, we can comprehend superficially, which may be enough for some text demands, but when the reader wants to explore, through his/her thinking surprising and wholly new ideas, maybe unimagined even by the author, I think and the research would suggest that they need to be able to kick this strategy into action.

Laura - Would it be good to start in the early grades by making the reasons we have picked a book to read aloud known to the children. We can describe our connection to them - text to ... ?

ellin - Remember that my definition of comprehension is the multi-faceted, purposeful exploration of ideas in order to remember them and use them subsequently. It isn't always necessary to do this.

I think it is necessary, however, a whole lot more than we currently do it in classrooms. For me it really is a matter of seeing how far the kids can probe an idea and reapply in a variety of contexts later.

Laura - Ellin, before we take the first question - is there a web site for the Literacy Project that is discussed in your book that gives more information, or have the ideas been published in journals that tell "how" to do this in your classroom.

ellin - Yes there are quite a few journal articles that our staff have written and a huge amount of information we've developed for staff development purposes. The web site is http://www.pebc.org and is pathetic because noone has a chance to update it --- help ---- but it's a fabulous organization and is a real think tank for these ideas. you have to come visit us!!

ellin - Ok, I am behind now (typical). Always late, too. Let me answer your earlier question. I can't find your question now Laura, but think it was about how early we start. The answer is day one kindergarten and now we're exploring pre-K.

Tammy - I'm not sure about how to go about assessing which of the skills the students need to start with and continue learning, i.e. text connections, questioning, etc. And also is it necessary to spend six weeks on each? I'm afraid we'd never get thru everything. Or is that important?

ellin - Great questions, Tammy. The assessment piece is very tricky because, of course, you're assessing thinking. The Major Point Interview for Readers (appendix) has been extremely useful and we've correlated it statistically (very strong positive correlation) to assessment instruments such as the Flynt-Cooter and the QRI2 -- page 228 -- The important thing is to, through conferences, through sharing sessions, through major point (regularly scheduled) assessment, ask questions to which they respond about their thinking during the reading of a given passage. The MPIR has been useful, but I recently had to rewrite it as the kids were getting so great, they blew the lid off the rubric.

The rest of your question, Tammy, yes, we are finding that each strategy should be taught in a variety of genre, assuming that the teacher will model with picture books, non-fiction, journalism (yes, even the little guys) poetry and other genres. By the time you have modeled and kids have had a chance to experiment in each of the genres, you really have eaten up weeks and weeks. I don't know of any of our skilled teachers, Tammy, who are getting through all seven in a year. There is no particular order suggested, either through our experience or in the research. Many start with schema because it is easier for us to understand and the result is that strategies such as synthesis and determining importance get left out altogether.

Heart - I was interested in your thoughts about what is appropriate reader response? Worksheet, questions are not appropriate. What is?

ellin - Heart --- yes you're right about that. We really think about reader response in four ways: oral, written, artistic and dramatic. We say to the kids something like, ok you guys. It is your responsibility to show us your thinking. This is tricky. Think about these four options --- oral, written, artistic, and dramatic, and choose one that will best reveal your thinking about the book I read to you this morning or the book you're reading during workshop right now. They come up with amazing options. Some predictable old favorites like using two or three column notes (the detail from the book, my use of questioning as i read, how it helped me to comprehend more deeply, with very innovative dramatic, artistic and oral ways to show their thinking and their use of a strategy they are learning at that time. Book clubs of course, are great venues for their think alouds. They can all be reading a different book and come to the book club to discuss their use of a strategy and how it helped them comprehend more deeply. The important thing is to let them generate the options and take responsibility for how they will reveal their thinking.

TM - Ellin, the basal that I use focuses its comprehension instruction on ideas like character, setting, plot, cause/effect, etc. Where do these things fit in with the strategies from Mosaic?

ellin - Another fourteen hour response!

ellin - We are teaching text structures such as those you mentioned and expository and poetic text structure as the "skeleton" of text much as the comprehension strategies are the "skeleton" of the mind. We know that text structures help kids to predict and therefore to make logical guesses about what is coming next, a very important strategy, but not a comprehension strategy. We can teach them text structures forever and still face the dilemma about how you get kids to explore ideas in text --- how you get them to remember what they have read. The strategies working as tools of the mind help us all do that.

TM - So would they fit best into the prior knowledge strategy so that students know the different text structures and refer back to them when encountering new text?

ellin - I really don't think it matters. Teach them when the text is particularly conducive to that instruction and don't forget to teach expository text structures!

Laura - Ellin, thank you so much for coming tonight. When is your next book due out?

ellin - Ha! That would imply that I was actually engaged in writing one. Actually I'm very interested and beginning to write about the applications of the comprehension strategies across the curriculum. Teachers here are doing some amazing things by integrating curriculum, not by topic or theme, but by comprehension strategy. For example, how do mathematicians and scientists determine what is important, how do writers use background knowledge, etc. It is really interesting work and I do have a book in the works, thank you for asking and of course I'm happy to answer another question.

Laura - Sounds very interesting. When can we expect it o:)?

ellin - Around the turn of the next millenia, i'm afraid. I need susan to sit me down and make me do it!

Terry - I want to ask Ellin how she uses mosaic with four blocks.

ellin - Briefly Terry, we have a lot of people in various stages of working with four blocks, guided reading and other structures. I find that rather than thinking about any one of those structures, it makes more sense to think about time for whole group modeling, follow up conferences with kids and opportunities to share with other readers. It has not been as useful to try to focus comprehension instruction at a time or in a setting where you are giving very focused attention to word instruction.

Laura - For those of you who haven't already read Mosaic of Thought, it is well worth your time. I know I speak for all of us when we say your book has changed many of our thoughts about teaching comprehension.

ellin - I am happy to answer more questions and/or to shedule another chat if anyone is interested.

Laura - We would love to have you back for another chat at the end of August.

Laura - Does anyone have another question for Ellin tonight?

ellin - You're so welcome. My sincere thanks to all of you for your interest and effort in exploring this important work.

Heart - Point and Slide.. why does that strategy work? It DOES work. But I wonder why it does when letters have different sounds...vowels.

ellin - It works, the research would suggest, because the word is gradually revealed to the reader visually. It breaks down the words into manageable chunks. Some words anyway.

Laura - Is there a schedule for your upcoming workshops? I will most likely catch you in CT in August.

ellin - My office jhendricks@pebc.org has a list of where I'll be when. You are welcome to contact her.

Laura - Do you discuss most of what is in Mosaic at your workshops?

ellin - depends on the audience, i try to customize based on the needs of the group.

Laura - This concludes our chat for tonight. Thank you all for coming. Ellin, do you have any final comments.

ellin - Just to thank you all again for your work in exploring the intellect with children. When I think about my own 10 year old and her teachers, nothing is more important to me than her exposure to the power of her own mind. I know you feel that way about all the children you touch, too.

Laura - We look forward to having you join us again, and hope that your new book is out soon :o)


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