Start with the why

In 2009, Simon Sinek made the bold assertion that everyone has a why, and great leaders know why they do what they do, not just how they do it. Sinek claims that knowing our why allows us to make choices that lead us to greater fulfillment in all that we do.

Interestingly, it turns out that the why is just as important in teaching and learning—specifically, helping students get more out of the stories they read.

Teachers have been using literature to convey moral anecdotes to students since the inception of schooling. However, research has shown that early learners often focus more on the details rather than the overarching theme, and miss the story’s moral. In a recent study, "Explaining the Moral of the Story," published in the Journal of Cognition (Walker, 2017), researchers found that by simply asking students why questions, teachers can help learners tease out broader meaning from a story, such as the moral.

Using two different experiments, the study’s findings demonstrated that prompts to explain aspects of a story enable children’s ability to move beyond surface features, and conceptualize the underlying moral. These findings can have a wide-ranging impact on comprehension and abstract reasoning in early childhood.

Caren Walker (the study’s author) notes that what we have learned and observed from developmental psychology over the years is that what children fail to do is not a failure of competence, but rather, a difference in where their attention is directed. In other words, when we redirect their attention to different types of information, children can do a surprising amount of things we didn’t think they could.

The idea of redirecting to different types of information with the ultimate goal of reading reminds me of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s innovative work in Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters (2017). Through their Book, Head, Heart (BHH) Framework, Beers and Probst advocate for helping students understand the potential power of a text in their own lives—the power of connection. If we help students understand the why of a story, in turn, they are able to make connections to their own lives, and other stories, ultimately achieving the highest level of comprehension.

Walker found that children who had been prompted to explain a story performed significantly better on reading tasks than the group who had just been asked to report on events that happened. Explaining a story facilitates abstraction and generalization of moral lessons, while reporting concentrates attention to facts and details that might not support comprehension and understanding.

For so long, we have focused our teaching efforts on fluency, decoding, and extracting data like names, dates, and other key character details, that students have missed the opportunity to understand why the author told the story, and its relevance to their own lives and community.

If educators actively engage students in the process of reading by asking why questions to support connections beyond the text, students’ comprehension will be broader and deeper.

Many students enter school with the longing and passion to read, a passion which can dissipate as years go on. As Beers and Probst note in Disrupting Thinking, “too many students still seem to think of books as burdens placed upon them, rather than invitations to experience new thoughts." (p. 56) When we move beyond the surface details of a text, we can start to understand the why behind actions of the heroes and heroines of the stories we love, and wonder how reading will change us.

Isn’t that what the joy and power of reading is all about?