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Frank McCourt

Reading for Meaning

Helping kids connect with what they read. Hosted by Frank McCourt, this episode highlights effective strategies to help kids understand — and care about — what they read, the ultimate goal of learning how to read. 

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About the program

Getting a book “inside your head,” understanding it, and connecting it to your life and everything else you know is the ultimate purpose of reading. The good news is that kids can be taught the skills they need to take what they read and make it their own. In this program, you’ll also meet children’s book author Walter Dean Myers (Harlem).

This 30-minute program is the fifth episode of our award-winning PBS series, Launching Young Readers.

Finding the right book

The library is a vital resource for one mom whose son’s appetite for information — especially about dinosaurs — is growing as quickly as his shoe size.

Engaging nonfiction readers

In Salt Lake City, teacher Margaret Barnes uses a framework called CORI (Concept Oriented Reading Instruction) to teach reading comprehension skills to second and third graders.

Reciprocal teaching: helping students take charge

A Seattle school uses a technique called Reciprocal Teaching that’s designed to improve reading comprehension.

Understanding themes

At Community School 200 in Harlem, Robert Vettese uses the Theme Scheme method to help his third graders discuss complicated narratives.

Walter Dean Myers: a writer’s story

Children’s book author Walter Dean Myers (Harlem) talks about a discovery he made in childhood: that books are a path to a world beyond our own neighborhoods.

Families find meaning

In Washington, D.C., inmates volunteer to get training in how to run a book club for their kids.

Watch the program


  • First Place Gold Camera award from the 36th Annual International Film and Video Festival
  • Four Silver Statuettes and a Bronze Statuette from the 24th Annual Telly Awards


Introduction: Reading for Meaning

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Frank McCourt: Hello, I’m Frank McCourt. The day after I came to New York from Ireland at the age of nineteen, I found my way to a bar. I’d only had a couple of beers when the bartender ordered me to leave. He told me walk along 42nd Street until I hit Fifth Avenue and saw two great stone lions. And so I ended up here in the main reading room of the New York Public Library. The sight of it made me weak in the knees, made me shiver to think I could come here anytime and read anything I wanted. I checked out “The Light of the English Poet.” And feeling quite proud, went right back to the bar. The bartender said, “You have the book in your hand, young fellow, but you don’t have it in your head. So go home and read.”

Finding the Right Book (Tifton, Georgia)

Eight-year-old T.J. has quite a line up for this Saturday. The playground is only the first stop in his mother Andrea’s plans.

Andrea: Oh, I’ve got the day planned out really nice. Okay, T.J. It’s time to go to the library!

Andrea: After we leave the park, we’re going to go to the library and look up T-Rex dinosaurs.

The library is the perfect place to feed T.J.’s growing appetite for information — especially about dinosaurs.

Andrea: Oh, my! If you just say “dinosaur,” T.J.…he just lights up. “Mama, we’re gonna learn more about the Rex. We’ve got to, we’ve got to!” There’s other dinosaurs, but T-Rex just kind of stands out.

Andrea has figured out that what makes these trips fun for T.J. is letting him pick his topics and direct his own search. When a kid is excited about learning, a library can be fully as much fun as a playground. In fact, it’s a playground that no one outgrows.

The first quest on T.J.’s dinosaur hunt is not for a book, but for a computer.

Carole Fiore: With the advent of the internet, the role of libraries has changed significantly. Rather than just being a library that’s contained within four walls in a building, it’s more a library beyond the walls. People can access our collections over the internet while they are at home, at school. It’s not just that you have to go to the library anymore.

T.J. also loves good old-fashioned books. And here he will find volumes about the creatures that fire his imagination.

T.J.: I like T-Rex and longnecks and all that kind of stuff. I like to read about cheetahs, snakes, a jet or a tiger.

Libraries allow kids to explore topics beyond their immediate experience. And to push themselves with challenging books.

J. Sara Paulk: Andrea’s approach is very supportive and very positive. She gives him freedom to pick out things and that’s real important with children. It’s important for them to pick out things that look interesting and fun that are sometimes too difficult for them to read, but it’s very necessary for adults to read with children. Even after a child can read on their own, they still have a lot of room to grow in their vocabulary.

Phyllis Hunter: A visit to the library before the age of six is a life-changing event. Research has been done to show that children who visit the library before they enter school begin to think of themselves as readers and begin to think positively about books.

T.J.’s quest has been a success. The books he’s found today will introduce him to new animals that will, in his mind’s eye, challenge the mighty T-Rex.

Engaging Nonfiction Readers (Salt Lake City, Utah)

If a change in the weather is coming, these students at Rosalyn Heights Elementary School will be among the first to know it.

Student: There’s no wind. There’s no wind. And the wind is sort of blowing. And it’s, uh, the temperature.

Student: Oh, the temperature is about thirty.

These kids are becoming avid readers. And not just of thermometers and barometers.

Student: Okay, you guys. It’s time to go back to class.

Margaret Barnes: So I have gotten us a really great book. And it’s called “Storm Chasers.”

Teacher Margaret Barnes uses a framework called CORI to teach reading comprehension skills to second and third graders. CORI, developed by Dr. John Guthrie, stands for Concept Oriented Reading Instruction. Organized mostly around nonfiction books, each eighteen week reading unit guides kids to come up with their own questions, dig up facts, integrate the findings and share the highlights with the class.

Student: And when they go over the water, they turn into water spouts.

Students pursue their own interests with hands on experience which shows boosts motivation more than say simply looking at pictures. Kids are also encouraged to ask their own questions.

Student: The questions I’m trying to answer are cloud questions. My first one is how many clouds are there? And how do clouds float?

Key to CORI is a large collection of irresistible books, from haikus to history.

Student: I like to have a lot of books to choose from. So that I can get information. But it’s hard to choose from. Because there’s so many. And I like tornado books. But I have to look at cloud books. So that I can get information.

Dr. Emily Swan: We know that choice is one of those intrinsic motivators. Social interaction is an intrinsic motivation. But when children have choice to find their books and then be able to talk with their friends about what they found and maybe, maybe someone will share, “Hey. I found this about tornadoes. Why don’t you read this book?” And they can recommend the book. Then that just lends itself to more engagement.

CORI offers explicit strategies for plucking information from a book. By thinking aloud, Ms. Barnes shows kids how to find the factual diamonds among the less brilliant stones.

Margaret: Wheel, wheel, silence blur. People hurry to a radio or TV and quickly flick it on. Hmm. I wonder why they’re doing that. See, I’m starting to think about this. As you read, do you think about things and kind of start to make questions in your mind?

Ms. Barnes has also shown her students how to find information by using an indexed glossary or table of contents.

Student: Let’s check on the other.

After the students’ own questions have been posed and researched and after the facts have been sifted and connected, kids can then communicate their findings to the class.

Student: Our report’s on whacky weather. Did you know it can snow pink snow? Well, it can. Because when picked up by gust, it carries it to snowplows. And then it snows pink snow.

Dr. Swan: Being able to communicate to others is an aspect of CORI that’s important. Because it validates that children are learning for the sake of learning. And when they ask their own questions and find answers and are able to express that and communicate that to others, it validates that they’re a learner, that they’re a thinker and a reader and a writer.

Student: Nate.

Student: Um, did anything break in the farm?

Student: Well, I think that the farm got knocked down and stuff, but not those three things.

Research shows that CORI works. Kids in CORI classrooms are not only more motivated and curious than those who get traditional instruction, they also score higher on reading achievement and conceptual knowledge. For kids who don’t enjoy fiction, many boys don’t, CORI offers a new route to reading engagement through non-fiction topics. CORI’s impact can last far beyond elementary school.

Dr. Swan: I watch children’s lives change. Because they may never have thought of themselves as a good reader. It changes the way they see schools It changes the way they see themselves as readers and writers. They remember it always. They remember the experiences they have in CORI classrooms forever. Right.

Reciprocal Teaching: Helping Students Take Charge (Seattle, Washington)

Mark Davies: A student found a frog. And he said, “The frog’s dead.” I said, “Well, how did you know that it’s dead?” And I said, “Excuse me?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I went pssst. It didn’t move,” he said. So it was dead.

Shira Lubliner: Okay. Could I have group one please come up to the table.

At Frank Love Elementary School, reading expert Shira Lubliner shows off a technique called “Reciprocal Teaching” that’s designed to improve reading comprehension.

Shira: (reading) Tap, tap, tap, tap. A sea otter lies on her back in the water.

The goal of Reciprocal Teaching is to prepare students to run their own discussion, taking turns as leaders. But first, Ms. Lubliner shows them how to guide a conversation about a book.

Shira: See, my first job is to ask a question. And I’m gonna try to ask an important main idea question that starts with a question word. Let’s see…what does the sea otter do to prepare lunch?

Louisa Moats: There is no replacement for a teacher who can generate a good discussion and get kids to really ponder what they’ve read and the whys and wherefores and connect those meanings to their own lives.

Shira: I’m going to predict that we’re going to learn some more about what sea otters eat.

Now it’s time for the kids to lead their own discussion — with a little help from Ms. Lubliner.

The kids begin with the first of four clear steps-asking a question.

Girl: What do sea otters have to be careful of?

The next step is clarifying the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Girl: Prefer fur.

Reilly: It means that somebody likes something better than they like something else.

Girl: Afloat. Jesse?

Jesse: Afloat means a little bit above the water. And floating on the water, not just under it or over it.

The next phase of Reciprocal Teaching is summarizing — finding the main ideas.

Girl: Sea otters have a lot of enemies. They have to be careful of eagles, white… I mean sharks, and fisherman.

The final step is prediction.

Girl: I predict that we’ll learn more about otters in this story.

Reciprocal Teaching promotes a give and take between teachers and students that achieves the ultimate purpose of reading: finding the meaning.

Understanding Themes (Harlem, New York)

Robert Vettesse: So you see if you can play checkers before, wow.

At Community School 200, Robert Baptiste helps his third graders discuss complicated narratives. He uses a program called the theme scheme designed for struggling readers.

Robert: What I like most about the theme scheme is the general map that it gives students to read a story with. I like the stories that were chosen. I like the diversity that is in every story. It gives my kids an opportunity to read a variety of stories.

Dr. Joanna Williams: With comprehension programs like the theme scheme, I think what we’re really trying to do is have children move up in their basic thinking skills. Because reading is in fact thinking. We don’t want children just to be able to read very fluently off the printed page, but not understand what they’re reading. It kind of sounds good. But they’re not really getting the point?

Robert: A long time ago in China, there was a boy named Ping.

The theme scheme focuses not only on plot, but as its name implies on the underlying theme of a story.

Dr. Williams: We’ve always chosen stories that have good, clear accessible themes. It’s very, very important in instruction to really show the children something that they can in fact get.

Robert: When Ping received his seed from the Emperor, he was the happiest child of all.

To find a successor, the Emperor gives seeds to many children. But only Ping is honest enough to admit his seed won’t grow.

Robert: So who’s going to be the new Emperor? One, two, three.

Students: Ping.

Robert: Very good. Ping is going to be the new Emperor. Why is Ping going to be the new Emperor?

Student: Because maybe he told the truth.

Robert: Hmm. Interesting.

Dr. Williams: We just don’t teach stories so that kids understand those stories. We want them to do a little more and go into another level of comprehension which is in fact theme comprehension. Stories have messages for us. They have lessons sometimes. They relate to other stories. And most important, they relate to real life.

Robert: Now, in the story, it was really hard for Ping to be honest.

The theme scheme challenges students to find echoes of a story’s theme in their own lives.

Robert: Has anybody ever had a time when where it’s hard to be honest in their lives? Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: When I was washing the dishes and I was drying, it was a glass cup. And it just fell. And the handle broke. And it was hard to tell my grandmother. Then I told her. And then she didn’t get mad. She just told me just leave it on the counter.

Robert: Oh, she didn’t get mad at you when you told her the truth.

Dr. Reid Lyon: So when you look at reading and its complexity, you’re looking at this integration of a number of fairly complex, cognitive and linguistic skills. They’ve got to know sounds. They’ve got to link sounds to letters. They’ve got to rapidly apply all of this to a whole page of print. And then as they’re reading, they have to structure themselves. They’ve got to ask questions about what they’re reading. They’ve got to summarize as they go along. They’ve got to predict what’s coming next. All of that goes into comprehension.

Elizabeth: I told her. And then she just told me to throw it in the garbage. She didn’t get mad.

The theme scheme has made for richer discussion in Mr. Vettesse’s class. And studies show that kids who use this program do better on comprehension tests.

Dr. Williams: Comprehension is the end goal of all reading instruction really. We train phonics. We train phonemic awareness. We give children lots of practice. So they become very fluent in reading. But it’s all in the pursuit of one goal, to get the meaning off the printed page.

Walter Dean Myers: A Writer’s Story

Frank: As my ship approached New York in 1949, a member of the crew told me that the minute we landed, I should rush to a shop and get the books of Dostoevsky and I’d never be lonely again. I share something with the children’s author you’ll read next, Walter Dean Meyers. We both discovered early in life that books were a path to a world beyond our own neighborhoods. Meyers has written more than fifty books for children. Three of them have one the John Newbery Honor Book Award.

Student: Did you like ever do a story about your life not like in the city, but how your life was like you had the bad times?

Walter Dean Myers: I’ve done an autobiography of my life called “Bad Boy.” I was very lucky in teachers. I had a sixth grade teacher. I was put into his classroom because I fought so much. And he was a tough guy. And he convinced me that I was smarter than I was tough. I was also handicapped to an extent. I spent ten and a half years, eleven years in speech therapy. I couldn’t speak very well for most of my childhood life. So when I wasn’t playing ball or fighting someone, I would be home with my books. My books were my friends.

Christopher Myers: I did the pictures for my dad’s books. Okay? For this book. It’s my daddy. And this is what we do together. We made this book Harlem. These are all pictures of people and places and things that I grew up around. Did you guys grow up around these same things? And you’re still growing up around these things, right?

Walter: Books transmit values. So if you pick up a book and you read a book, you say the people in this book were valuable enough to record their lives, to record their neighborhoods.

Christopher: Do you guys ever see anything about where you live that’s not so good?

Class: Yes.

Student: There’s too much violence.

Student: There’s a lot of bad people.

Christopher: What are the good things?

Student: People plant flowers and plants.

Student: People get along and they play together, no matter what color you are.

Christopher: I’m going to draw for you, okay? So dad is going to work with you on the story. And whatever you bring me, whatever you say and whatever you talk about, I’m going to draw for you. Are you ready?

Class: Yeah.

Christopher: Let’s do it.

Walter: We sit down. And we come up with characters. We come up at plots. We work hard at this.

Walter: A cat is going to write a book about a mouse. I like it.

Walter: With the creative process, I want children to look at their lives anew.

Walter: What’s the cat’s problem?

Student: The cat’s problem is he never catches the mouse.

Walter: This is a fast mouse. I mean, this mouse has — is very, you know, what kind of sneakers is he wearing, Chris? He’s got some sketches. The cat tried to catch the mouse by running and he couldn’t catch him with his bicycle. Now he’s learned something. And he’s now instead of trying to chase him, he’s got a plan. And we need to figure out what is that plan?

Student: Um, the cat could trap the mice in the trap mice place.

Student: Mousetrap.

Student: Mousetrap.

Walter: Reading has changed in my lifetime. When I was a child, my father could not read, but he was strong. My father’s a little bull of a man. And he could make a living. Today, you can’t do that. Today, reading is like air. You have to be able to read well to survive today.

Families Find Meaning (Washington, D.C.)

Sarah: What would you do if there was a child that gave you an answer that was not correct?

A group of fathers has volunteered for training in how to run a book club for their kids.

Sarah: Going to be two words of the week for this book.

Program Coordinator Sarah Amour offers tips on keeping kids motivated.

Sarah: We have the reader coach ask the children to answer these questions to make sure that they’ve comprehended the story.

In this program, children must travel to visit their parents every week. That’s because the parents are in prison. They are inmates at a correctional treatment facility in Washington, D.C. Families that have few precious minutes together before the book club begins.

Richard Roe: The shared experience between the parent and child that makes the thing work around the book. It’s not necessarily what the book says in and of itself. The interaction with the parent and child can go far beyond the particular book.

For eight-year-old Gregory, Jr., seeing his father, Gregory Sr., at the book club seems to be a highlight of his week. Although, the meetings can be emotionally tough.

Gregory, Sr.: Everything okay?

Gregory, Jr.: Yeah.

Gregory, Sr.: How you been?

Gregory, Jr.: Fine.

Gregory, Sr.: I told you what you said…

Gregory, Jr.: Yeah.

Gregory, Sr.: (inaudible)

Gregory, Jr.: Yeah.

For the next hour, a book will serve as a new kind of link connecting these men with their children, working together in a group increases reading comprehension.

Gregory, Sr.: (reading) A wonderful, beautiful, fat, soft armchair. We would get one covered in velvet with roses all over it. We are going to get the best chair in the whole world. That is because our old chairs burned up. There was a big fire in our other house. All our chairs burned. So how do you feel about that?

Gregory, Jr.: Sad.

Gregory, Sr.: Huh? You would feel sad if all your chairs burned? Huh?

When children have a chance to discuss what they read, their comprehension improves.

Gregory, Sr.: Anybody want to tell me where the story take place? Where the story take place at?

Child: Inside and outside.

Gregory, Sr.: Inside and outside.

An extra benefit for Gregory, Jr. was a boost in confidence.>

Gregory, Sr.: In the first book club, he was sort of shy when I was asking him, “You don’t want to read?” And he was like, “Well, I’m shy, daddy.” Gregory, Jr.: She felt like…

Gregory, Sr.: You know, and I coached him on. And he read. And they applauded him. And the environment was very beautiful. So that helped a lot, too.

Gregory, Jr.: Try out all the chairs.

Gregory, Sr.: That’s right. [applause]

Gregory, Sr.: He gave me insight on how much that I’m really needed there for him as a father.

Sarah Amour: At the end of the program, the children have a lot more self-confidence in themselves and in their reading. And also, they understand what the concept of a club is and how to help support each other.

The club runs for about three months. To keep Gregory, Jr. on the literacy track, his dad has recorded a special tape for him.

Gregory, Sr.: (on tape) My mother worked as a waitress…After school, sometimes I go…

Gregory, Sr.: In the course of reading, I may stop and say send a little message to him that he know…he and I only know. And I know that it makes him life and brings enjoyment in his life where he can feel me there with him.

Gregory, Sr.: (on tape) Sometimes she’s so tired she falls asleep.

D.C. Family Literacy is not only building Greg, Jr’s comprehension skills, it’s helping him grow closer to his father under very trying circumstances.

Close & Credits

Frank: As I grew up in Limerick, I used to hear my headmaster, Mr. O’Halloran, say stock your mind. It is your house of treasure. And no one in the world can interfere with it. Well, there’s no better way to stock your mind than reading. Researchers have figured out which teaching techniques actually work. When they’re used, almost every child can achieve the ultimate goal of reading, grasping the meaning. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for helping kids fill their minds with treasure.

Announcer: To learn more about Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers and how you can help a child learn to read, visit PBS online. You’ll find tips for parents, classroom strategies for teachers, and profiles of children’s book authors, all at [music]

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.