Building Learners: The Big Picture (Part 1 of 2)

This is two post topic that we are excited to be writing about and sharing with you. It has been a great experience for us to collaborate together as a husband and wife team on a topic we are both passionate about.

This week is Part 1: Purposeful Instruction: Creating Conditions for Biggest Impact On Growing Readers

Next week is Part 2: The Pieces and Parts: Thoughtful, Effective, and Efficient Planning

Community ConversationPart 1:  The Big Picture

I (Carrie) love puzzles.  I’m not sure why, but I do.  

What are the steps to choosing and solving a puzzle?

Most people choose a puzzle by looking at the picture on the cover, something that appeals to them.  They then have that cover, or top of the box, readily accessible to refer to as they attempt to put all the pieces together.  Many people also have a method, or system, to solving a puzzle.  Edges first is a common plan.  Grouping alike pieces is yet another strategy.  Then as you carefully study each piece, its cut, uniqueness, and color, you find another piece that it slips into it perfectly.  What a sense of accomplishment each and every time the pieces come together.  Slowly but surely, the picture you have been referring to takes shape, each piece an important part of the whole.  As you finish those last couple of pieces, you relish in the feeling of completeness, often reflecting on your struggles and steps along the way.  I often find myself wanting to glue it all together just to save it (although I have yet to do that).

Solving a Puzzle is Like Teaching Reading

I believe that solving a puzzle has a lot in common with successful reading instruction.  As teachers, we start with the big picture, or the whole.  We make sure we not only read aloud books that are of high quality and interest, but that students have access to books that are highly engaging.  Along with that, we embed choice so students are excited and motivated to read.  We use the big picture, or the authentic context, to teach those smaller isolated pieces and parts that go into teaching reading (ie strategic actions, reading strategies, phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency).  We can break it down, just like those individual puzzle pieces, to show students those pieces and parts.  We then bring it all back together to that meaningful whole for the students so they can apply their learning and truly see the purpose behind the what, how, and why of our teaching.  When it all comes together, it’s like a beautiful picture.  A beautiful picture that makes sense.

Whole-Part-Whole Teaching

In the book Read, Write, Read by Regie Routman, there is a section titled Responsive Instruction Feedback, and Assessment.  In that section, Routman talks about the need for teachers to shift to Whole-Part-Whole Teaching, just as in the puzzle analogy mentioned above.  

“We often think that if we give our must struggling students isolated parts of whatever we are trying to teach them, that somehow all these parts will eventually come together as a whole.  It rarely happens that way.  We only confuse and frustrate learners and make it harder for them to progress.  In fact, a part-to-whole approach with its emphasis on isolated pieces is one of the three most significant, research-based factors that holds students back and keep schools low performing…we learn more-and more easily-when we start with a whole, meaningful text, process, or activity and embed within it the necessary skills and strategies the learner will need to achieve success…

Even kindergartners-who embrace writing free-verse poems-quickly grasp the idea of playing with line breaks, white space, rhythm, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, titles, and endings all at the same time.  If one of those areas needs special attention, we take it out of the context and explicitly demonstrate and practice what students need to know.  But that “isolated” teaching fits within the context of a meaningful whole, and so it makes sense to the learner.” (Routman, 2014, p. 61)

Routman’s thoughts are not new ones, but she explains it very well.  Dorothy S. Strickland also wrote about whole-part-whole framework in her Educational Leadership article titled What’s Basic in Beginning Reading? Finding Common Ground back in 1998.  

In their 2nd edition of Guided Reading, Fountas and Pinnell also point out, when discussing the Systems of Strategic Actions, that “Readers use all of these actions simultaneously in a smoothly orchestrated way.  They cannot be used or learned separately, but sometimes readers revisit or look back at a text after reading once to apply them in a more intense or focused way” (p. 200).  For the visual and more about the strategic actions, see the article What are the Systems of Strategic Actions?.  This quote speaks to the importance of whole-part-whole teaching.

Carrie Higginbotham is currently an instructional coach at Hilliard Crossing Elementary.  She is currently in her 14th year of teaching.  Her passions include literacy, creativity, mathematics, and learning in general.



Image Herb HigginbothamI am the principal of Alton Darby Elementary in Hilliard, Ohio.
I am in my 10th year of teaching, and I love working with kids of all ages. I am passionate about innovative learning, technology, and helping students understand how they learn best as they work to achieve their learning goals. I believe the key to creating successful educational experiences is to always focus on what is best for kids.