Scaffolding deep reading: a personal recollection

I have an entrenched memory of something I experienced in the eighth or ninth grade. One of my friends was taking part in a weekly book club in the library at our school. This weekly book club (or story club, to be more accurate) was being organised by one of our favourite teachers. She was relaxed and casual but asked her students to think deeply about social and civic issues. It’s important to note that my friend was not the best reader, and I was what you would probably call a reluctant reader. I liked the concept of reading, but I often found it an endurance sport. However, since I knew everyone in the group, I thought it was a good way to spend one lunch per week. Have I forgotten to mention that it was a group of five boys discussing stories and none of us were what you would classify as a “strong reader”?

Now, bear in mind, we were all able to read the short stories (i.e. decode and accurately comprehend what we were reading). And the short stories were written in such a manner that we were presented with a controlled amount of challenging vocabulary and other language features. Therefore, we were able to problem solve and discuss new meanings and expressions without becoming frustrated or bogged down. It also helped that these stories were not overly long, and each one clearly probed a moral, social or civic issue, particularly through the confrontation of often adolescent characters. I distinctly remember counting the numbers of pages of each story, though, such was my aversion to reading material that was too long and tedious

I distinctly remember “THE BOOK”. It was a brown paperback book that was divided up into stories of 10 to 15 pages in length (perhaps classics). It may have had the logo “GREAT BOOKS” on the front. Initially, I thought that I was mistaken about the title of the series until a Google search supported my memory. The Great Books foundation ( provides books that are meant “to advance social and civic engagement and help people of all ages think critically about their own lives and the world we share.” The book club may or may not have used the Great Books material, but it definitely was designed to provoke deep discussions about justice, fairness, and individuality, whilst providing a platform for weaker readers to practice deep reading and discussion skills.

In the end, it meant that there were five adolescent boys sitting around a table once a week at lunch who all had a shared understanding of the situation that was presented in the story. We all came prepared. We read the weekly story in advance, because it was embarrassing to let the group down. We didn’t debate what occurred in the story. Instead, we debated our interpretations of the situation(s). And that meant that we interpreted macro features, such as how a character acted and whether such actions were fair. It also meant that we interpreted micro features, such as the choice of words and other details which provided information - occasionally ambiguous - on how a character might have been feeling or how the character might have been motivated to act in a certain way. 

These weekly discussions - at times heated - inducted me into deep reading, perspective taking, and evidence-based argumentation. I often had to disagree with a friend, and still respect him as a friend outside of the weekly meetings, even though we were discussing significant issues of moral, social and civic behaviour. I also needed to be in a position to listen and alter my viewpoint of a character or event if someone in the group presented evidence that I initially overlooked and had not appreciated.

Sourced from Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. 

You see — here you have a group of students who had all learned to read proficiently (i.e. decode and understand), but who had yet to learn how to read meaningfully and critically. The teacher provided us with a space where we could learn to read more insightfully, discriminatingly and deliberately, which reminds me now of a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “seeing an aspect and imagining are subject to the will” (PI, Part II, xi). We had to learn to work hard as we read. In other words, one doesn’t comprehend merely because he or she can read. One must put effort into navigating the details of a text to find one’s way about. One has to *deliberate*, and the routines of deliberation are based on experience, practice and guidance in how to engage deeply. One has to ask questions, “where do I begin?”, “what does this mean?”, “am I right?”, “do I agree?”, “do I have the right picture?”, “is anything unclear?”, “do I need to read this again?”, “what am I thinking and feeling?” (See accompanying figure from Olson & Land [2007] for other common ‘mental moves’) This can all be exhausting if one hasn’t had the chance to take a breath and find the time to practice, interpret and discuss increasingly complex information. 

Whilst this next bit may be off topic, I am often struck when I have failed to properly read a bank form or government form. I might only pick up my errors either on a second/third reading or with the help of another person. Imagine the person who struggles to read and who struggles to hold attention on key details. It can be mentally exhausting and stressful to navigate complex material if one is struggling and concurrently lacks confidence and guidance. Everyday documents can be technical jungles if one lacks confidence/experience in navigating multifaceted material. 

The following passage from Wittgenstein illustrates why it is important that all teaching includes explicit guidance in how we regulate our thinking. This includes teaching that fosters the types of dialogue that govern our activities. As Vygotsky (1978) observed, "every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people..., and then inside people... All higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals." (p.57) In my case, the group discussion with my peers came to shape my internal deliberations as I learned to read deeply on my own.

Let us imagine someone doing work that involves comparison, trial, choice. Say he is constructing an appliance out of various bits of stuff with a given set of tools. Every now and then there is the problem “Should I use this bit?” -- The bit is rejected, another is tried. Bits are tentatively put together, then dismantled; he looks for one that fits etc, etc.. I can now imagine that this while procedure is filmed. The worker perhaps also produces sound-effects like “hm” or “ha!” As it were sounds of hesitation, sudden finding, decision, satisfaction, dissatisfaction. But does not utter a single word. Those sound-effects may be included in the film. I have the film shewn me, and now I invent a soliloquy for the worker, things that fit his manner of work, its rhythm, his play of expression, his gestures and spontaneous noises; they correspond to all this. So I sometimes make him say “No, that bit is too long, perhaps another’s fit better.” -- Or “What am I to do now?” -- “Got it!” -- Or “That’s not bad” etc. (Zettel, #100)

The lunchtime book club was an important part of my growth as a reader. I would still count the pages of the next chapter of my book. I would still often consider reading an endurance sport. However, I became aware of the times when I was “just going through the motions” of reading and when I was reading with my full attention. I also grew to appreciate how important it is to discuss what we read and also discuss what we write. This would became apparent in my later years of high school when I joined a weekly poetry circle at a local bookshop. That - though - is a story for another time.



The Great Books Foundation -

Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. 

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

_____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press.