img_1715Pat and I wrote about the importance of integrating strategies in Catching Readers Before They Fall. We love the analogy of an orchestra. In a symphony orchestra, all the instruments blend together to form incredible compositions extremely pleasing to the ear. The strategies in the head of the reader combine together to make meaning of the text just as each instrument joins the musical composition perfectly in tune with the others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as my kindergarten readers are taking off in their independent reading. Teaching integration right from the start is key to developing strategic readers. I teach many strategies through reading aloud, thinking aloud and showing kids how that strategy can help them as readers. Together, we create an evolving chart of what readers do. It’s important to me that this chart, and the language on the chart, is co-created with the kids so they have ownership.

As we add to our anchor chart of what readers do, I make sure to refer to this chart often by thinking aloud during interactive read alouds, and referring to it during small group instruction and conferences. I show the kids how we don’t just use one strategy at a time, rather, we use many of them simultaneously.










I help the kids reflect on what they are doing as readers and see these strategies as tools to make meaning from text. I want them to have several things to pull from when meaning breaks down and when they are stuck on a tricky word. I keep small photos of our large, evolving, strategy chart around the room for them to refer to as they read.

As I send the kids off to read independently, we read over our anchor chart. I have them put up their fingers, one at a time, as we read each strategy. Then we weave our fingers together, showing that the strategies all go together. This physical movement symbolizes the integration of strategies.

Teaching integration right from the start helps build a solid foundation for our readers. How do you help readers see the importance of integration?


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?

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.