Ellin Keene is the author or coauthor of many books for literacy educators, including the classic Mosaic of Thought. She has spent much time in the past four years developing her new work linking oral language and literacy development. In this podcast with Brenda Power, she talks about language habits and teacher reflection in the classroom.
The assessment instrument Ellin mentions in the podcast is available for free from Heinemann. If you are interested, click on this link, then scroll down and click on the “Companion Resources” tab:
A full transcript is available below the player.
Brenda Power: So Ellin, it’s a pleasure to talk with you today. I’ve just read your book, Talk About Understanding, and I think it’s such a wonderful contribution to the field. I’ve always been interested in oral language, and so I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your work is taking you into oral language from the comprehension strategies? And maybe they’ve always just been very intimately connected, but can you talk a bit about that?
Ellin Keene: Sure, Brenda. Thanks for chatting about this today. This is the first time I’ve actually talked about the book since it’s been out, so, you know, we’ll hope that I can remember what I wrote in that thing. I don’t know. We’ll have to find out. But the genesis of the idea – I also have been concerned and interested in oral language for a long time.
And the genesis of the book really came from a period of time in 2005 to 2008 or 2009 when I actually set aside large chunks of time from my consulting work and other writing work to go into classrooms around the country – classrooms where I had a working relationship in the district. But very diverse classrooms, from upper income to very, very low income, highly impoverished neighborhoods. And my goal in those classrooms was really just to watch, and to keep my mouth shut for the first time in my life, which was really challenging.
And just to watch kids in the process of “understanding.” You know, when they were really seeming to “get it.” We use these terms, we throw around these terms – understand or get it – like we know what that means, and what it looks like. And what I was interested in was really thinking about what does it look like when kids are understanding deeply, and most importantly, what does it look like if that understanding was, say, a concept in science or social studies, or understanding from a book? What happens that helps that memory last? What is it that helps that understanding have some staying power?
And I’m worried about the sort of relatively short staying power that I had observed in classrooms, that kids will remember a concept or talk about it, reapply it, you know, for a couple of days. But if you go back six weeks or six months later, the recall is very low, and the reapplication is almost nil, and that’s in so, so many kids. So that was really the sort of problem that provoked this. I wanted to find out if kids aren’t remembering six months later, then I guess I questioned whether they understood in the first place.
So I wanted to go back and really study understanding, and then have a chance to follow up with those same children at intervals – you know, six weeks, six months – it was, of course, give or take, that period of time – to see what was sticking. What was still being applied down the line. And what I found is that there were some markers or indicators of the kind of understanding that sticks. And so in the first part of the book I really write about those markers, some indicators that may – usually do – may indicate the kind of understanding that is true. That is likely to matter to that child six weeks, six months down the line.
And in the second half of the book, then I write about how we as teachers can – not just create the conditions for that kind of understanding, because I think a lot of people have written so beautifully about conditions for the classroom and so on. But then what I was interested in is seeing if there are particular ways that we could adjust or modify our oral language in order to lead to that kind of understanding that sticks. So that was really what the book was about, and it was based on my observations in lots and lots of classrooms, and lots of lots of transcribing of lots and lots of work on the computer, so.
Brenda Power: Well, and as I was reading it, I saw the title Talk About Understanding, but I almost felt it could be titled “listen for understanding.” One thing I’ve seen recently from some of the Choice Literacy contributors is it seems to be a trend that a couple have written recent pieces about just stepping back and taking a few days where they would normally have their conferring time with students, and just listening and jotting down what they’re hearing students say. Which is what you’ve really talked about, too, in the book, and what does that mean for teacher moves?
And I think when you do that – and it’s not just a matter of trying to listen more closely in a conference – but to give yourself permission to say, “This whole 45 minutes this whole week, I’m just going to listen.” It’s a completely different kind of listening; you’re not –
Ellin Keene: Yep. It’s a totally different kind of experience.
Brenda Power: Yeah, you’re not listening to, “Well, what’s my next move?” It’s really, “What’s going on with these kids? What do they know and what can they do?” And I think that’s fascinating, because that’s a real shift for teachers. I mean it’s –
Ellin Keene: I agree – it’s so hard to do that, ’cause of course, you want to think they get you all the time. But you do see something so different in that process, and that’s exactly what I was able to do, because you get the sense of the whole class and how they function together. So it’s not so much listening. It’s listening, but it’s also observing. It’s getting a real sort of detailed visual picture of how your kids function – or don’t – together. You know, and how they work as a group, and how they solve their own problems. That was fascinating to me, too.
And what do we do as teachers through our oral language with kids that actually encourages them to be problem-solvers rather than solving their problems for them? That was a big part of what I observed.
Brenda Power: Yes, and what would you say, that whole idea of encouraging kids to be problem-solvers, and seeing that sort of learning that sticks at six weeks, eight weeks later? You know, what’s the first step for a teacher who’s interested in that?
Ellin Keene: Well, I think it’s to stand back and ask yourself, “What is it that counts in my classroom as true understanding?” How do I define true understanding, first of all, and then how do I tell if kids are really understanding in the kind of way that they’re going to be able to remember and reuse the information down the line? So I think the first thing for me to do, anyway, was to know what I was looking for in the classroom; to look at the behavioral markers, but also the kids’ oral language that defined and described understanding.
And I think in a lot of classrooms we’ve had great use and great application of comprehension strategies, but unfortunately, a lot of people have looked at comprehension strategies as an end in themselves. And of course, they’re not; they’re tools to get to deeper understanding. So the question I feel like we haven’t answered yet, and the place I would start as a teacher, is to say, “All right, what does deeper understanding look like for these kids?” What are the markers that they are understanding deeply enough that they’re going to remember and reapply?
And then how do I watch for those markers or indicators that kids are understanding deeply? And importantly, how do I model and think aloud using those markers, so that kids can get insight into how a person goes about not just using a strategy, but using a strategy as a tool to go deeper, and what that actually looks, sounds, feels, tastes, and smells like.
Brenda Power: Yeah. I get the sense in the book that we can have a fear in classrooms of challenging kids too much or confusing them with things like the sophisticated vocabulary that really is a marker of content learning. And you’re really pushing teachers to not dumb down their vocabulary.
Ellin Keene: Absolutely; this is huge. Yeah, I have a whole section in the second half of the book where I’m talking about using the most sophisticated vocabulary you can really muster at the moment. And then, of course, defining it parenthetically, and using that terminology repeatedly, so that kids build a context for their understanding of that word. But that’s a hugely important piece. And I was actually presenting some of this last year at Michigan Reading, and there was a person who was very checked-out, as I am not, in the theory and research in working with second-language learners.
And she said, “Oh my gosh, your books would really be for second-language learners.” And I said, “Well, that’s not my area of expertise. I don’t know enough about it.” But she seemed to indicate that those kinds of things, like using sophisticated vocabulary – and I’m also arguing for using – varying our syntax. So having some short sentences, but some very long and complex sentences mixed in together. And she was arguing that that was also a very potent combination for children who were learning English, and that we do tend to dumb down. And that is, of course, the opposite of what they need. At least I knew that.
Brenda Power: Well, and I think it’s almost a spectrum, from something being a second language to something that’s really just a different register. You know, how scientists talk, how mathematicians – I mean there’s degrees of subtlety there that kids won’t necessarily pick up unless we feel free to use some vocabulary that’s new to them, that they –
Ellin Keene: Exactly; exactly. Plus I find – and this is the fun part – kids love being cut into the big vocabulary game. I mean they just love it. They feel honored to be trusted with sophisticated language, and they feel that when they’re able to use words like that, it is a little bit of an insight into their intellect; into their ability to I guess use the kind of terms that more sophisticated language users use.