Inferring themes and more

The classroom teacher of the 5th grade class I work in suggested I do the interactive read aloud the other day — my favorite thing!  Since this is a Literacy Collaborative school, reading workshop is opened with a ‘readers’ statement,’ (a short statement about something readers do that helps anchor our instruction and focus our students) so I began with “Readers often read deeply and try to ‘see more’ than just the surface storyline.”

Since the start of school we have been talking about inferring, reading between the lines, figuring out the underlying message of a picture book if there is one. The class had read Ish and Crow Boy, along with a few others, and had some great discussions about the message or theme. (By the way, the teacher and I don’t worry much about whether students can define the words ‘infer’ or ‘theme’.  We feel it’s more important that they actually DO infer, read deeply, support their opinion about a theme they’ve discovered, comprehend well and so on.)

We’re finding that the students are not familiar with a lot of themes in the literature they read (after all they are only 10 and 11 years old), so we’ve been trying to support them by guiding their thinking as we discuss texts together.  They don’t realize as easily as we do that themes can be things like: courage, honesty, standing up for what you believe in, fighting against peer pressure, survival, the power of friendship, believing that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and so on. The more experiences we give them with interactive read alouds, allowing time to negotiate the deeper meanings of texts together, the greater the chance that they will be able to do this on their own.  Basically, it’s just another way of scaffolding their thinking processes.

I wanted to begin with an easy theme to spot, so I told the students that a very popular theme in books is the idea of ‘good vs. evil.’ Some students quickly suggested books like the Harry Potter series and Lightning Thief.  From there we talked about Fairy Tales and how the characters in them are often so clearly all good or all bad.  As we wondered why ‘good vs. evil’ is such a popular theme and has been around for centuries, I shared with them what I learned from reading the note in the front cover of Rough Face Girl.  The note suggests that humans have always craved justice.  We like to see good get rewarded and evil punished.

After a fun read aloud (I love doing the voices of the characters in different ways) the students talked with partners about the evidence supporting the theme of ‘good vs evil’ as well as ideas comparing this book to the Cinderella tale.  They were interested to learn that there are 1500 versions of Cinderella.  Next week I’ll read Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (another Cinderella tale from Africa) and our conversation will continue.

Here are a few questions for you to ponder: What picture book do you enjoy reading to kids that has some sort of theme or underlying message? How do you support students in learning about themes? What sort of lessons are you doing in primary grades related to ‘reading deeply’? We welcome your comments.

Also, Katie and I talk more about inferring (it’s not just about identifying themes) in Chapter 9 of Catching Readers Before They Fall. We also did a video webcast  for the Reading Recovery website. You can view our presentation slides and link to the video webcast here.

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