This month let's use selections from good literature to strengthen comprehension strategies.
Good readers interact with text without even realizing that they are doing it. Poor readers often are unaware that this is what they are supposed to do. They read literally without bringing in prior knowledge. Reading a piece of material as a group and then gleaning meaning from that selection together is a helpful reading activity for many. If we do the reading strategy sessions with a light touch, we can accomplish two main goals: encouraging better reading comprehension and pointing readers to some good books.
First, some general suggestions:
- Choose material that is slightly below the reading level of the average child in the group.
- Choose interesting material.
- Make overhead transparencies of the selections that are clearly visible so that everyone can look at the material at the same time. You can, of course, give them copies but, for me, the overhead works best. That way readers are looking up not down at their desks.
- Read the selections aloud together before starting on the activities thus eliminating the need for decoding.
- When working strategies together, be sure to keep the tone light and encourage variant answers. You want everyone to feel welcome in the discussion.
Reading for Detail & Making Inferences - Shiloh
Let's start with Phyllis Naylor's Newbery Award winning Shiloh (Atheneum, 1991 ISBN 0689316143. Order Info.). Take the part near the beginning of the book where Marty's father and Judd face Marty and ask direct questions about seeing the dog.
"Come on around here. Judd's dog's missing again, and he wants to know have you seen him."
"H-his dog? Here in the yard? Haven't seen any dog of any kind in our yard all day," I say, coming a few steps closer. Judd is sure studying me hard. So is Dad.
"Well, how about when you went out looking for bottles?" Dad asks. "You see him then?"
"Nope." My voice is stronger now. "Saw that big German shepherd of Baker's that gets loose sometimes, and saw a little old gray dog, but sure didn't see that beagle."
"Well, you keep an eye out sharp," Judd says, "and if you see him, you throw a rope around him, drag him over. Hear?"
I only look at him. Can't speak. Can't even nod my head. I wouldn't never promise him that.
"You hear what he asked you, Marty?" says Dad.
I nod my head. Yes, I heard.
The thin line that Marty walks between truth and falsehood while trying to keep Shiloh a secret from his parents is an excellent opportunity to read carefully for details. The kids will need to know the basic plot of the book and this is a good time for those who've read it to fill in the necessary background thus using their summarizing skills.
In discussing the selection, you'll probably want to decide together what the truth of the situation is. You might want to construct a chart similar to this one:
|"Haven't seen any dog of any kind in our yard all day"||Shiloh wasn't in the yard when Marty saw him.||Father thinks Marty hasn't seen Shiloh|
|"...sure didn't see that beagle"||Marty didn't see Shiloh while he was looking for bottles but he has seen him.||Father and Judd think Marty hasn't seen Shiloh.|
|I nod my head. Yes, I heard.||Marty heard what his father and Judd said.||They think Marty has agreed to bring Shiloh home.|
More Information on Shiloh.
Making Inferences - Holes
In the case of Louis Sachar's book Holes (Yearling, 2000 ISBN 0440414806. Order Info.), the entire book makes good use of inference reading. We learn from bits and pieces to solve the puzzle of the prison camp.
Use the breakfast scene:
"Stanley was half asleep as he got in line for breakfast, but the sight of Mr. Sir awakened him. The left side of Mr. Sir's face had swollen to the size of half a cantaloupe. There were three dark-purple jagged lines running down his cheek where the Warden had scratched him.
The other boys in Stanley's tent had obviously seen Mr. Sir as well, but they had the good sense not to say anything. Stanley put a carton of juice and a plastic spoon on his tray. He kept his eyes down and hardly breathed as Mr. Sir ladled some oatmeal-like stuff into his bowl.
He brought his tray to the table. Behind him, a boy from one of the other tents said, "Hey, what happened to your face?"
There was a crash.
Stanley turned to see Mr. Sir holding the boy's head against the oatmeal pot. "Is something wrong with my face!"
The boy tried to speak but couldn't. Mr. Sir had him by the throat.
"Does anyone see anything wrong with my face?" asked Mr. Sir, as he continued to choke the boy.
Nobody said anything.
Mr. Sir let the boy go. His head banged against the table as he fell to the ground.
Mr. Sir stood over him and asked, "How does my face look to you now?"
A gurgling sound came out of the boy's mouth, then he managed to gasp the word, "Fine."
"I'm kind of handsome, don't you think?"
"Yes, Mr. Sir."
In this selection Stanley has learned not to call attention to himself but the new boy is less fortunate. The strategy of using prior knowledge to make inferences can be the focus here.
Suggest that the students list the prior knowledge they used while reading this piece:
- "Mr. Sir" is a strange name. It's really two titles with no name.
- The size of a cantaloupe is about six inches in diameter.
- A warden is the head of a prison.
The inferences readers made from reading this selection might include:
- Most of the boys are afraid of Mr. Sir.
- The food is not very good.
- This must be some kind of prison camp.
- The boy from the other tent might be new.
- Mr. Sir is a bully.
Visualizing - Autumn Street
Another reading strategy that helps with comprehension is the ability to visualize, turning words into images. Use the short selection describing in detail a little boy's bedroom from Lois Lowry's Autumn Street (Houghton Mifflin, 1980 ISBN 0395278120. Order Info.).
"Nathaniel's room was messy, bright-colored, haphazard and happy, strewn with little-boy toys. Lincoln Logs and a half-constructed, green-roofed cabin lay on the rug, waiting for his return, for his cheerful concentration. I felt the guilt of gladness once again, that Noah was dead, that Nathaniel's playthings were safe, and that Nathaniel smiled so much now. I dropped Charles' hand, knelt on the rug, and added a green slat to the roof of the little house.
Nathaniel's pajamas, printed with clowns and jugglers, were discarded in a corner of the room, dropped in a wrinkled heap where they were outlined by a rectangle of sunlight from the window."
It's a temptation, of course, to have the kids draw the room right away, but I'd keep it oral for a while. After the selection is read aloud, suggest that the children close their eyes and construct the room together, adding each detail as they remember it. Check with the text when necessary to complete the details.
There's also a chance to use prior knowledge here since there are many things that would likely be in a bedroom that Lowry chooses not to mention in her description - a closet, dresser, pictures or posters on the wall, for instance. After listing some of those missing details, readers might be able to imagine their appearance based on the look of the items she does describe.
Suggest that the students work in groups to put the images of the bedroom on paper. Then compare the results. There should be a set of similarities and a set of differences. You could make venn diagrams to show this.
More about Autumn Street.
Making Predictions - Crabbe
This selection from the survival story Crabbe by William Bell (Irwin Publishers, 1986 ISBN 0772515638. Order Info.) offers a good chance to make predictions at the beginning of the book and then read to find out how many of your predictions came true. Try the selection near the beginning of the story where Crabbe decides on the location for his get-away.
"To most people, running away without leaving a trace would be impossible. They leave breadcrumbs behind them, clues fall from them like scent. I was lucky. My Father had taken me camping with him a few years earlier. It was the only trip we'd ever done together. I guess it was supposed to make up for all the years when he didn't know I existed. Anyway, I had overheard him telling a friend of his about the scenery but he'd forgotten the name of the lake and everything else about the trip. I was certain they'd never imagine their weak and unathletic son would ever run off to the woods.
I knew how to get to the lake and where we had put in that summer. There was a fishing lodge called Ithaca Camp on the shore of the lake - a bunch of cabins owned by a fat, friendly Greek with eight kids and a collie. You could launch a boat there for two bucks. But at the edge of the camp, a flat, calm river meandered into the lake. I knew that a sideroad crossed that river about a half mile upstream from Ithaca Camp. If I could hide the car in the bush near that bridge, get downwater past the camp and across the lake before dawn I would simply vanish. It would be like crossing the magic threshold in a myth."
First of all, there are inferences that can be made from these paragraphs about the boy's life before he runs away. Then you may want to get very dramatic with the prediction process here, encouraging the kids to display their predictions in ghostly writing or to deliver them in person while gazing in a crystal ball. You could display each prediction on signed strips on a bulletin board, removing each incorrect one as students proceed through the entire book.
Inference and Gleaning Information - The Birchbark House
For our last selection let's use Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House (Hyperion, 1999 ISBN 078680300. Order Info.). First of all, don't miss the opportunity to involve map skills by interpreting together clues for the story from the map on the end papers of the novel.
Then take the dramatic selection where Old Tallow's dog attacks Omakayas and is dispatched by Old Tallow.
"He growled, worried the stick as though he'd caught a gopher, then dropped it and with an eager bite tore into the blanket that fell from her arm. With a vicious lunge, he bit Omakayas above the wrist and jumped back eyes gleam blazing with cowardly triumph. Omakayas tried to yell, but her voice stuck in her throat, a squeak. She felt a rushing blackness overwhelm her again, tried to throw herself upward, tried to growl back and challenge the dog. With excitement, though, the dog realized he had her at his mercy at last. He jumped forward again. This time he fell upon her leg and bit deep. Omakayas heard a loud scream, her own scream and pain blotted her sight then as she swirled into the dark.
She woke a moment later in Old Tallow's arms. "What happened?"
Nearby the dog cringed and tried to slink away from Old Tallow's glare. Old Tallow carefully put the girl down. With a swift, bearlike swipe, she grabbed the dog and held him by the scruff of the neck with one hand. He whimpered and snarled at Omakayas as though to say, She made me do it. Old Tallow shook her head, sadly, and lifted her ax, ignoring Omakayas, who panted weakly on the snowy ground. Old Tallow spoke to the dog as she would to a human. Sadly and firmly, holding him by the neck, she told the dog what he had done.
"Didn't I warn you, didn't I say to you, didn't I tell you many times that you must never hurt this one? Yes, n'dai, you look at me now with pleading eyes, but I spared you many times before. Each time I spared your life. I always told you what would happen if you were so foolish again. Now, my foolish friend, you must die."
The description here of Old Tallow's behavior leaves much unsaid for the reader to infer about her respect for the animal and about the clear choice she makes when she kills him. Whether or not she was justified in her action is a good subject for debate here. Clearly Omakayas is appalled. How do your readers feel about it? What earlier information, gleaned from the book, would go to support her action? Conversely, what information would show the dog's feelings toward Old Tallow?
We started these activities with the defense of an abused dog and we end with the killing of a different dog while uncovering the motivations and justification for both actions within good reading material.
Keep the guided reading activity short and informative. With reading it's seldom true that gain equals pain. Get back to the uninterrupted reading of the books as soon as possible. Have fun.
Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site
- Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Book Review.
- Autumn Street by Lois Lowry. Book Review.
- The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. Featured Book with classroom activities, related books and links.
- Reading. Links to other articles.
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