Feeling strategies at work

I started thinking the other day about how much has been written lately about getting kids to use their strategies as they read.  We want them to use these strategies to make sense of text and to help them get unstuck when they get stuck.  In one 5th grade class, the teacher and I have been talking about, modeling, and doing shared demonstrations with the kids since September on all kinds of useful strategies, but I decided to come at it from a different angle.  I wanted them to feel how natural and automatic their strategies came into play when the text was something that was extremely easy.  So the day before Thanksgiving I did some storytelling for the class (now don’t stop reading because you are NOT a storyteller; you can do this same lesson with a read aloud book.)

I storytold the folktale “Tinderbox” first.  After the kids did a quick turn and talk about what they liked about the story, we looked at a chart with pre-written words — visualizing, predicting, making connections, questioning, inferring (and under inferring it said, “characters, underlying ideas, word meanings.”)  As we talked about each one, the kids had so much to say. I was amazed!  There was no “pulling teeth” to keep this discussion going. Here are a few snippets from that conversation:

Pat: When I was telling this tale I had no book or props in front of me.  Did you get any pictures in your mind?  What mental image was clear to you during the telling?

The 5th graders described in great detail the chamber with three doors, the enormous dogs sitting on top of each sea chest, the witch sitting by the large oak tree, and many more scenes.

As we discussed predicting, almost every student said they predicted that the third sea chest would contain gold.  Following that, other kids shared ideas of when their predictions didn’t come true.  One student said, “I thought sure the witch was going to kill the soldier when he wouldn’t give up the tinderbox, but I was surprised that she was the one who burst into 1,000 pieces.”  Another said, “when you said the princess was locked in a tower, I thought this story was going to turn into Rapunzel, but it didn’t.”  It was easy to lead the discussion into the idea that sometimes we need to rearrange our predictions as we get more information.  The discussion continued with connections to other books and questions or wonderings the students had during and after the story.

My favorite part of the discussion came when the kids realized how easy it was to infer word meanings when they were totally engaged in the story.  I asked them to figure out what it meant when I told about the witch having a hard time pulling up the soldier with the rope “because he was so laden down with all that gold.”  Though that’s certainly not a word they use, they quickly figured out what it meant.  Several students were also able to come up with a word that described the main character of the soldier (another way to infer) — greedy, clever, self-centered, careless with money — and gave evidence from the story to back up their idea.

Pat:  We also said that inferring had a lot to do with reading deeply and trying to “see more.”  Did you get any idea about how women were treated back in these medieval times?

Serena: Not so great.  That princess didn’t get to decide who she wanted to marry.  Her parents wanted to decide for her.

Chris: Yeah, and the soldier wasn’t very respectful of the witch.  I mean, she was just an old lady, but because she was ugly, he called her a witch.  And she made him rich, but he still wouldn’t give her back her tinderbox.

I ended the discussion (which could have gone on and on!) with reminding the kids that what they were doing was feeling their strategies at work.  I said, “You see, you own these strategies.  They are yours.  It’s like you have powers – thinking powers – that can help you understand what you are reading. It was so easy for you to do it with a story that’s not hard to comprehend, but they will work just as well when you are reading on your own in your chapter books.”

I felt this lesson had a strong impact on the struggling readers in the group, and yet everyone in the class enjoyed the telling of “Tinderbox” and later “Tailypo.” How visible are you making those comprehension strategies for kids?  Are you giving kids time to really feel how the strategies can work for them?

Fostering Independence – Part 2

A few days ago, we posted some ideas for fostering independence. Here are a few more ways to support children in becoming independent readers and writers:

6.)  Ask students what they would like to learn when starting a new unit in the content areas.  Katie recently began a unit on monarch butterflies and her kindergartners wanted to know what the caterpillars ate. They did a science experiment to investigate the answer to this question and read several books to verify their findings. Out of their conversations, many more questions came up that guided their unit on monarchs. Creating a “wonder wall” suggested by Georgia Heard and Jen McDonough, authors of A Place for Wonder , is one way to keep track of all the thinking that comes up when students are investigating a new topic. Many of their “wonderings” become topics for further reading or writing projects.

7.)  Model ways to get unstuck when you are stuck.  Demonstrations are powerful.  But keep in mind that not only do we have to demonstrate strategies, we also have to support students as they take them on independently. If students are going to own their repertoire of strategies for solving words and understanding text, then we must gradually release responsibility to them.  Be sure to scaffold students and not rescue them as Terry Thompson says in his article from Choice Literacy, Are You Scaffolding or Rescuing?

8.)  Allow time for students to talk during interactive read alouds.  Let them share their own thoughts, connections, wonderings, and inferences.  Teaching for comprehension means teaching children to think – but then we have to give them opportunities to actually do that thinking.  Peter Johnston once said, “thinking well together leads to thinking well alone.”

9.)  Use inquiry-based learning in the form of individual project learning.  Provide some time each day for interest-based learning.  In one second grade class a few kids are writing a play together; some are using the internet to find out more about gerbils; some are doing science experiments; another group is reading books by the same author; some are making a store for practicing making change; some are making a poster about Rosa Parks.

10.)  I’ll let our readers add an idea for the 10th way to get your students to own their learning.  What’s your idea?

The Ultimate Goal is Independence

So many of us talk about wanting students to be independent, to be lifelong readers and writers, to choose to read and write on their own time, and so on.  But we have to remember that such independence won’t happen unless we foster it in every single grade level, every single year. Here are 5 of 10 ways to get students to own their own learning as readers and writers (we’ll post the second 5 next week, so remember to check back):

1.)  Independent Reading Time – giving time each day for students to read books of their own choosing is crucial. Share stories of who you are as a reader.  Treat all students as readers, not just the “top” students in your room.  All readers chose what they like, tell others about the books they read, have favorites, keep lists and piles of ‘someday books’, and talk about books and authors.

2.)  Writer’s Workshop – allow for topic choice.  Teach students how writers get ideas. Support them as they create their own possible list of topics. Read aloud to them and show them how authors write about different topics and things they know a lot about. Even if you are using the Calkins’ Units of Study, you can still give choice under the genre you are studying, such as small moments, how-to writing, etc.

3.)  Goal Setting in Reading – We suggest brainstorming possible goals with the students, especially if they don’t have much experience with goal setting.  With the teacher’s guidance, the goals will reflect ways of improving as a reader rather than just a number or level goal. Some of the following were brainstormed in a 4th grade class: I’m working on making my reading sound smoother; I want to try a book that is not a series book; I’m working on rereading the whole sentence if I’m stuck on a word; I want to understand what I read better; I want to read a book in a new genre; I want to read more hours in a week; I’m working on sounding more fluent when I read out loud. Stephen Layne says, “I believe that goal setting can be tremendously motivating –when the people setting the goals are the same people who will be working to make them successful.” He also suggests we nudge kids to set a goal that will “stretch you in some way” and “one that is attainable but will also push you a bit.”

4.)   Goal Setting in Writing – Students can also make their own goals in writing. These will come from what you teach.  If you only stress punctuation, spelling and subject/verb agreement, their goals will reflect that.  But, if your lessons include good leads, good endings, staying on topic, writing descriptively, writing persuasively, developing characters, creating powerful titles, exploding a moment, slowing down the scene to build suspense, incorporating dialogue into your stories, writing free verse poetry, writing engaging non fiction, and so on, then students’ goals will reflect your work with them.

5.)  Show, support, and encourage self-monitoring in reading.  There are so many aspects of reading that we want children to self-monitor for.  We want them monitoring for 1:1 match, for solving words by using a balance of meaning, structural, and phonetic information, for comprehension, for fluency, and so on.  Self-monitoring means ‘checking on yourself’ all the time.  When we get children to be good checkers, they are responsible for their own understanding of texts.

We’ll list more ways to foster independence in a few days, so start thinking of others to add!  We’d love to hear from you.