Teacher Scholar Voices

Searching for the Donut Hole: A Lesson in Reading Comprehension

Teacher Scholar Voices


 Jill E. Thomas has been teaching since 2002. She has spent the last 10 years in Oakland Unified School District at Life Academy where she taught everything from 9th grade English to PE to 12th grade English to 6th grade reading intervention. She has also blogged for Teaching Tolerance and Edutopia. Currently, Jill works as a Teaching Effectiveness Specialist supporting a teacher growth and development pilot in OUSD. In this piece she reflects on how learning partnerships with students, strengthened through her Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry, helped her better understand the limitations of how she been teaching visualization strategies to support students’ reading comprehension.

In my ninth year of teaching, I threw myself a curve ball and offered to teach a sixth grade reading support class. I’d taught reading for a number of years, but never in middle school. I thought I would mostly get schooled on preteens, and I certainly did, but I learned quite a bit about teaching reading too.

As an English teacher in an urban school, the majority of my students have always been reluctant, if not struggling, readers. I’ve acquired a repertoire of reading strategies that I teach them to help address their needs. One of the classics is visualization. On the surface, it seems simple: create pictures in your head of what you read on the page in order to stay engaged and “see” what the text is about. But it turns out to be more complicated than that.

When I asked sixth grader TC to draw a representation of what he imagined in his head after reading a short text, he drew a picture of a donut. This would have been great if the passage had been about donuts, but it was about encyclopedias. I reviewed the passage to make sure there wasn’t some evidence of a donut in there that I had missed. I didn’t find one. So, I asked him why he drew a donut. “I drew a picture of a donut,” he explained, “because that’s what I’m thinking about.” While he may have been trying to be funny, the truth was he revealed to me that telling a student to attach images to reading was not enough. I had been asking ninth graders to visualize for years and had always wondered if it helped them understand the text.

In fact, questions of vocabulary development, student identity, and background knowledge immediately surfaced for most of my students as I asked them to visualize. TC was the only African-American student in my reading support class at a school where Latinos make up the majority. My reading class acted as a de facto English Language Development class, and TC felt it. More than once he’d asked why he was “the only black kid.” Getting him to become a skilled reader would directly and positively affect his identity as a student and thus it became my moral imperative for the year.

I continued to ask him to use visualization, but as I did so, I also looked for the donut holes, that is, the misunderstandings in his reading. By looking closely and asking TC to explain his thinking to me, the holes became more evident.

One donut hole was reading only part of the passage. When TC read a passage about a boat that was sinking because of a leak, he drew a picture of a sinking boat. But his explanation for why it was sinking was the wind. The day before we had read about hurricanes. It seemed that he was connecting these ideas in his mind. This was a smart move, but one I wouldn’t have been able to see at all, let alone see as smart if I had not been asking him questions and trying to dig deeper.

Another donut hole was not reading the whole passage, or reading the whole passage but recalling only the last sentence or two instead of the main idea or topic sentence. Still another donut hole I found was that TC was getting so involved in the text that his creativity took over and he extrapolated facts from the text.

Over time and with practice, TC got stronger at applying visualization in a meaningful way. But what made it meaningful was that I asked him to visualize along with something else, like finding the main idea or explaining what the passage was about. Visualization, I discovered after many years of “teaching” it, could just as easily be a distraction if students were not skilled at using it.

At our school we say reading and writing are “revolutionary.” As a reading teacher, I’ve always believed that to be true. Explicitly teaching a student like TC the skills he needs to be a strong reader is one of my greatest challenges and proudest accomplishments. And yet, there is always more to learn in order to do this effectively, more donut holes in my practice to discover.