Finding Depth in Any Book
July 31, 2019
Here’s a familiar conundrum: a young reader is a little more advanced than their classmates. Their reading speed is faster, the vocabulary words are old hat, and the reading comprehension questions at the end? “Bo-ring,” they announce. So what do you, the educator or parent, do?
If your instinct is to find that kid a harder book, you’re in good company. That’s actually what most people would do. If this kid reads faster, pick a longer book. If they already know this collection of vocabulary, find one with vocabulary they don’t recognize. If the reading comprehension questions at the end bore them, skip them.
The unspoken assumption here is that the book was the problem. The book was too easy, surely, and so it’s better to find this kid a book that matches their reading level. They need a challenge, after all.
Here’s a question: how do you quantify how hard a book is? What standard will you use when you’re standing in front of a shelf of books at your local library searching for a “better” book for this young reader? What counts as a challenge, anyway? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and one kid’s challenge is another kid’s easy-breezy-lemon-squeeze-y. The book one kid is bored to tears by might very well be the perfect match for another kid, even for another kid at exactly the same stage of reading development. You can count words per page, and you might even delve into lexile scores, but how much do you know at the end of the day? How sure are you that one book is a challenge and the other is too easy?
In short: what even is a “challenge” when it comes to reading?
Short, Not Shallow
Here are some facts: the poem “In a Station of the Metro” was written by Ezra Pound in 1913. It is fourteen words long and has a Lexile score of between 400L–500L. According to the Common Core State Standards Lexile, that puts this poem unambiguously in the 2nd-grade reading level. Though a second grader will probably stumble over the word “apparition,” this poem is otherwise well within their wheelhouse. Faces in a crowd and petals on a tree bough are not difficult images to comprehend. So has the second grader finished when they close the book on this poem, confident that they are “done”?
Given that this poem has spawned countless works of literary criticism and cemented Pound’s reputation as a seminal modern poet, we can presume that the second grader was not “done.” I can personally testify that I once found it easy to fill twenty pages analyzing this poem for a graduate course on poetic forms.
This is a hyperbolic example because no one would claim to be “done” with one of the greatest works of poetry from the 20th century, and we would all recognize this as a moment when going “deeper” is the right answer. We all would instinctively know to tell this student: go back to the poem. Go further. Go deeper.
Yet so many people would do the opposite for the student who closed their school-assigned chapter book with a sigh of boredom. Most people would rush to find something “harder.”
It was unfair to use Ezra Pound to prove this point, but the point still stands: your gut-level instinct was wrong, and you shouldn’t close the book on the book that young reader tossed aside. Not every group of fourteen words will be up to the standard set by Pound’s poem, but some of them will be. Who’s to say there isn’t a smuggled group of fourteen great words hidden somewhere in the book that young reader just discarded? Or the one you just closed?
Processing that Discourse
Here’s another way of looking at it: there’s a field of study called “discourse processing” that investigates the depths that hide beneath the surface of written and spoken language. It’s a multidisciplinary field that extends well beyond the purview of education. It includes psychology, rhetoric, sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, sociology, anthropology, computational linguistics, and computer science. Practically speaking, it’s a field dedicated to advancing our comprehension of “text,” either written or spoken.
In this field, you would separate the “surface code” from other concerns. In other words, the words on the page and what they “obviously” mean is only one part of a much larger discussion. It’s the first stepping stone to deeper analysis. For Pound’s poem, the “surface code” tells you to think about what the faces in a crowd at a train station look like and to compare them to the mental image of petals brightly contrasted against the black bough behind them.
But this field of study doesn’t stop there. You can dive beneath the surface using a couple of different pathways.
You might pursue something called a “situational model” (often called “the mental model”). Think of this as the purview of those rudimentary reading comprehension questions the young reader wanted to skip. Who wrote this poem? What was he like? Knowing more about him, what do I think he meant by this poem? How much do I know about train stations anyway? And, hey, what kind of tree has petals instead of leaves? Just contemplating these questions gets a reader thinking deeper than the surface level. In fact, coming up with good questions is a victory all by itself. But let’s say you want to start answering some of these questions.
Having posed all those questions during the “situational model,” you are now ready for the “pragmatic communication model,” or, in layman’s terms, a discussion. You’ve probably experienced a version of this. You thought you fully grasped some book, some poem, some film…and then you talked to someone who opened up a whole new way of looking at it. Maybe it was an English teacher, but maybe it was a co-worker at the water cooler who noticed some detail in the latest episode of Game of Thrones that you utterly missed. Maybe with Pound’s poem, you’ve been thinking about whether a maple or poplar has the leaves that most resemble the faces in the crowd, and then someone says, “Hey, do you think this poem might be a haiku?” And you hadn’t thought of that. But now it makes you ponder a new answer to your own question: with a Japanese influence, couldn’t the petals be cherry blossoms? And, if that other person at the water cooler happened to be Japanese, they might be able to nod and push that thought even further forward. They might even be able to spin that connection towards the Japanese idea of 物の哀れ (mono no aware) or “the pathos of things,” a Heian-era philosophy that is deeply connected to cherry-blossom symbolism.
(You’re probably getting a clearer mental picture of how I found it easy to fill twenty pages about a fourteen-word poem.)
The point is that the discussion itself is what presses your comprehension further. You didn’t notice the Japanese influence until someone pointed out the similarity to a haiku structure. Now that you’ve considered it and put it together with your idea about the petals being cherry blossoms, you’ve both got a deeper appreciation of the poem than you started with.
You might recognize the fundamentals of your own language arts education underneath all this jargon. How many times, after all, were you instructed to read something, think about it on your own, and then participate in a discussion about it in a language arts class? It turns out all those teachers didn’t just conspire to make you answer odd, winding questions. It was all a concerted effort to teach you how to find (or make) a deeper comprehension; or, as the jargon would have it, to move beyond the surface code.
But I picked an easy exemplar in Pound’s poem. Of course a poem like that can bear the deeper scrutiny. Ezra Pound put the depth there to be found. Nobody’s putting extra levels beneath the surface code of a Goosebumps novel or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See, right?
What if I told you even Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? can bear this kind of deeper thought?
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Can Totally Bear Deeper Thought
An American literary theorist, legal scholar, author, and public intellectual named Stanley Fish once conducted an experiment with his students. After a class on a completely different topic had finished, he left the dregs of that class’s discussion written on the board at the front of the classroom:
(The leftover notes referred to six linguists. The first hyphenated names were co-authors of a number of textbooks, and the last name was a mis-remembered version of Richard Ohmann’s surname. The parenthetical question mark indicated Fish’s uncertainty about the spelling.)
When Fish’s next students entered, prepared to discuss religious poetry, he told them a lie. He said that the detritus on the board was not the hodgepodge it appeared to be, it was actually a poem. He challenged them to analyze it.
His students rose to the challenge. Believe it or not, they were able to turn the mess of notes into a poem about the relationship of Judaism to Christianity.
Fish’s students were trained to find deeper meaning in texts, and they brought their skills to bear on a collection of random words. What they created through their analysis and the volleys of their discussion is nothing short of brilliant. There was no Ezra Pound to make sure that the words they analyzed had been pre-packaged with depth. In fact, these students created the significance wholesale out of their own analysis.
Do you doubt that a similar group of trained literary minds could do the same for Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
In other words: if the meaning wasn’t left there for you by a clever author, that shouldn’t stop you from inventing your own.
Yes, But What Should I Do?
Back to the young reader who has just tossed aside their book with a sigh and a “bo-ring.” Your instinct was to give them a harder book. If you shouldn’t do that, what should you do?
Step One: Ask the obvious questions. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? makes the job easy for you (your first question is right there in the title). The same can be done with any number of books. Is your child reading Goosebumps: Why I Quit Zombie School? Here’s the first thing you can ask: “So why did they quit zombie school?” If your young reader is a little younger and struggling their way through The Very Hungry Caterpillar, here’s another obvious question: “Hey, why do you think this caterpillar is so hungry?”
Depending on the age and cynicism of the young reader, you can expect a variety of responses from enthusiasm (“Because the caterpillar is about to become a butterfly!!”) to an eye-roll (“Duh, who wouldn’t quit zombie school?”), but persevere! This is just step one.
Step Two: Go off on tangents. There’s nothing wrong with wandering a bit off the beaten path in a conversation like this. You don’t need to just check their comprehension of the book they’re reading, you can just wander.
“Oh man, I bet it would be so scary to see a real bear!” you might say to the reader of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See. “Have you ever seen one in real life?”
“So do you like zombies? What’s your favorite zombie movie?” you might ask the reader of Goosebumps: Why I Quit Zombie School.
Remember, the discussion pushes comprehension further. You’re not really going astray, though it might feel like it. You’re actually reinforcing the connections this young reader has already made to the book. They’re going to be more open to a deeper comprehension because they’re thinking more expansively.
Step Three is to reverse the polarity: prompt them to question you. Answering your questions is all good and grand, and it’s definitely a key component in building towards deeper comprehension. But consider this: a typical student in a classroom asks 0.11 questions in an hour, and only 10% of student questions overall tend to involve deep reasoning (source). In other words, they’re not in the habit of asking the questions, and their questions will stay shallow without practice and guidance.
A great way to prompt young readers to start coming up with questions is to challenge their beliefs and knowledge. Adults tend to do this with children naturally without recognizing it. As my small niece developed early language, she, a Maine-native, fixated on words like “coat” and “boots.” The adults around her were delighted and started to ask: “Is this a boot?” while pointing at their coats. “No! Coat!” she would declare with glee. The adults around her weren’t “teasing” her, they were challenging the knowledge base she was certain of. For an early language user, this meant that she got the opportunity to push her language skills further: identifying the correct word for the object being pointed at, using “no” correctly, and recognizing that she knew more than she thought she did about the world around her.
A fancier way of explaining this is to say that cognitive disequilibrium generated by the challenge to entrenched beliefs led to deeper comprehension. Disrupting the things the reader thinks everyone should already know leads them to start questioning other things. Asking, “is this a boot?” while pointing at a coat is a disruption. If my niece were older she might have asked, “Huh, what is a coat anyway? And how is it different from a jacket?” But, since she was only a little over a year old and doing pretty great with her shaky grasp on just a couple words for winter clothes, she didn’t.
Too Long, Didn’t Read
So the short answer to “what should I do when this young reader says they’re done with their book?” is: talk to them. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book or not, it doesn’t matter if the book is a revered classic of literary greatness, and it doesn’t even matter if you stay talking about the book.
I promise you: there’s depth to find or, even better, depth to make.
Doman, Mary. “Lexile Levels: What Parents Need to Know,” Scholastic. https://www.scholastic.com/parents/books-and-reading/reading-resources/book-selection-tips/lexile-levels-made-easy.html
“Discourse.” Entry. State University Education Encyclopedia. 2019. Web. https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1915/Discourse-COGNITIVE-PERSPECTIVE.html
Fish, Stanley. “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.” Is There a Text In This Class? Boston: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Martin, Bill and Eric Carle. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996.
Pound, Ezra. “In a Station of the Metro.” Poetry, 1912. Stein, R. L. Goosebumps: Hall of Horrors: Why I Quit Zombie School. New York: Scholastic Paperbacks, 2011.