For retrospectivemiscue.com

In order for individuals to progress as readers it matters that they:

  • Understand that reading is a meaning-making process;
  • Believe in their ability to make sense of text;
  • Find reading pleasurable/believe that it serves some function for them (Halliday, 1973; Pinnell, 1985) so they choose to read;
  • Self-monitor (stop when something does not make sense); and
  • Have a repertoire of effective and efficient skills and strategies for problem-solving meaning.

Those of us who developed this list (Stephens et al. 2012; Stephens, 2013) came to understand that when individuals have the first three characteristics, they spontaneously stop when something does not make sense.  These readers then have a meaning-making problem they want to solve and use skills and strategies to do so. We refer to those individuals as having a “generative theory” of reading and of themselves as readers. We chose the term “generative theory” because we found that individuals who understand reading as meaning-making, have a sense of agency and choose to read are positioned to progress as readers. We have seen that, despite years of skill and strategy instruction, students who do not have these characteristics make little progress as readers.

Our conceptualization of What Matters means that teachers must first find out whether their students already hold a generative theory. The two most effective and efficient ways to learn this about individuals are Miscue Analysis (Goodman, Y. & Burke, 1972; Goodman, Y., Watson, & Burke, 2005; Goodman, Y. & Marek, 1996) and Kidwatching (Goodman, Y., 1978; Owocki & Goodman, Y. 2002). Miscue Analysis allows us to understand the cues and strategies students are using when reading; it also helps us determine if they approach reading as a meaning-making process or focus on getting words “right.” With Miscue Analysis, we can learn whether or not students stop when something does not make sense and what they do, if anything, to problem solve, to make sense of text. Kidwatching, which is a critical aspect on its own and a part of Miscue Analysis, allows teachers understand how students feel about themselves as readers (their sense of agency), whether or not reading serves some function for them and, as a consequence, if they choose to read.

If students do not already hold a generative theory, then teachers must create conditions under which students can develop or deepen such a theory. Creating those conditions is the first curricular move that teachers need to take if their goal is for all of their students to progress as readers. Allington (2011, 2013), Cambourne (1988, 1995), and Johnston (2004, 2012) have all written texts which help teachers create these conditions. Allington suggest that students should be reading books for which they already know 98-99% of the words. This allows them to focus on meaning and build vocabulary. Cambourne lists eight conditions under all which learning – including developing a generative theory – occur: immersion, demonstration, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, engagement and response. Johnston demonstrates the power of teachers’ language and suggests that we teachers study our language so that we can create dialogic classrooms in which students have a sense of agency.

Under these conditions, students develop and/or extend a generative theory, spontaneously self-monitor and use various skills and strategies to problem solve meaning. Kidwatching plays an important role here. Teachers often discover that under the right conditions, students reveal skills and strategies that were previously not evident. Consider the second grader who came to the word tortoise and stopped. I asked, “What are you thinking? The child responded, “I think it is a very big turtle.” My comment was “It is a very big turtle; the word the author used is tortoise.” This short exchange demonstrates that the child was predicting and making inferences during reading – a skill his or her teacher might have thought the student needed to be taught.

That “teaching reading” should begin by knowing readers and helping them develop a generative theory is not yet practiced often in classrooms. In many classes, teachers often begin reading instruction with the fifth item on our list, skills and strategies. However, (a) students have no use for skills and strategies until they have a problem to solve and they do not encounter problems until they hold a generative theory; and (b) under the right conditions, students often demonstrate that they already possess many of the skills and strategies that teachers believed they needed to teach.

There are times though when the skills and strategies that students use to problem solve are not particularly effective or efficient and strategy instruction can be helpful. Recently, for example, a second grader was reading about tsunamis and how they can destroy an entire town. He stopped at the word entire and tried to sound it out. I wanted to keep the meaning going and so suggested he just skip the word and see if what he was reading made sense. He seemed rather shocked at the idea that he could just skip a word, but he did so, and almost begrudgingly indicated that he now understood that tsunamis could destroy a town – the whole town.

When students are learning if a word is necessary for meaning, I suggest teachers scaffold students into putting a green post-it flag for times when they skip a word and the sentence made sense; a yellow post-it flag for when they substitute a word that did make sense; or a red post-it flag for when they skip it and it does not make sense. The green and red flags help teachers understand the problem-solving that students are doing; the red flag signals to the circulating teacher that the student would like some help. When the teachers talks with students who want help, I suggest that teachers focus on meaning (which this student had), and supply words that are not predictable.

This kind of responsive teaching, though, comes last in the “instructional sequence.” First, teachers must learn, through Miscue Analysis and Kidwatching, whether their students hold a generative theory. Teachers then ensure that they have created the conditions that allow all students to develop or extend that theory. Miscue Analysis and Kidwatching will also enable teachers to learn what problem-solving strategies their students already have. They often hold strategy sharing sessions (See chapter about Tim O’Keefe’s classroom in Stephens, 2013) so that students learn from one another. They teach through response and provide customized feedback when the student is challenged by a meaning-making problem.

Traditional teachers sometimes consider this approach “counter intuitive” as reading skills and strategies historically have been taught in isolation. Students have and are being “taught” (but likely not learning), solutions to problems they have not yet encountered, do not yet want to solve, or do not yet believe they can solve.

Traditional teaching, however, has not improved the trajectory of students as readers. Whether looked at forward or retrospectively, the pattern is the same: students for whom reading was not easy in kindergarten often are labeled as “struggling” readers by third grade (if not sooner) and continue to be challenged by reading throughout their school years and into their adult lives.

Those of us who created the What Matters list and named the first three characteristics “generative theory” have seen all our students make considerable progress as readers. First and foremost, they are readers – individuals who find reading pleasurable and choose to do so. Second, they are efficient and effective problem-solvers of meaning. They predict using semantics and syntax and, as appropriate, confirm using grapho-phonemic information.

Our deep hope is that more teachers would start by creating the conditions that support the development of a generative theory and use Miscue Analysis and Kidwatching to inform customized, responsive teaching.

Diane Stephens


Allington, R. (2011). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based program (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Allington, R. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers? The Reading Teacher, 66 (7), 20-30.

Cambourne, B. (1988). The whole story: Natural learning and the acquisition of literacy in the classroom. New York, NY: Ashton-Scholastic.

Cambourne, B. (1995). Towards an educational relevant theory of literacy learning: Twenty years of inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 49(3), 182–192.

Goodman, Y. (1978). Kid-watching: An alternative to testing. National Elementary Principal, 57(4), 41–5.

Goodman, Y., & Burke, C. (1972). Reading miscue inventory. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Goodman, Y. & Marek, A. (1996). Retrospective miscue analysis: Revaluing readers and reading. New York, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Goodman, Y., Watson, D., & Burke, C. (2005). Reading miscue inventory: From evaluation to instruction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Halliday, (1973). Explorations in the functions of language. London, England: Edward Arnold.

Johnston (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Johnston (2012). Opening minds: Using language to change lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Owocki, G, & Goodman. Y. (2002). Kidwatching: Documenting children’s literacy Development. New York, NY: Greenwood.

Pinnell, G. S. (1985). Ways to look at the functions of children’s language. In A. Jaggar & M. T. Smith–Burke (Eds.), Obseving the language learner. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Stephens, D., Cox, R., Downs, A., Goforth, J., Jaegar, L., Matheny, A., Plyer, K., Ray, S., Riser, L., Sawyer, B., Thomspon, T., Vickio, K., & Wilcox, C. (2012). “I know there ain’t no pigs with wigs” Challenges of Tier 2 intervention. Reading Teacher, 66(2), 93–103.

Stephens, D (Ed.). Reading assessment: Artful teachers, successful students. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.


The Essential RMA:  http://www.retrospectivemiscue.com

Richard C. Owen: http://www.rcowen.com


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