Quick Tip Tuesday: Helping students discover their reading lives

March 17th, 2009

In this week’s Quick Tip, Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak, authors of Still Learning to Read, share how they help their students redefine what reading means at the beginning of the school year. They guide their students as they research and discover their own reading lives and as they move from defining reading as just “sounding out words” to figuring out what readers really do.

Several weeks at the beginning of the school year are spent helping our students learn as much as they can about themselves as readers. Early in the year, when we ask students questions about their reading, their answers are usually somewhat shallow. Often we get blank stares, a quick comment like “I don’t like to read” or a puzzled response like “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that before.” We always worry when we get these responses that maybe this group of students won’t be as thoughtful or as reflective as the previous classes we have had. Somehow, each September, we forget that it takes time and conversations to help students become reflective about their learning.

Because we know it is important for children to know themselves as readers, many of our lessons during the first few weeks of school invite the students to think about different aspects of their lives as readers. We start the year reading books about reading, such as The Library by Sarah Stewart. We also read them Ellen B. Senisi’s Reading Grows. This picture book follows children through reading development, from their being read to as infants to their becoming proficient readers on their own. It is a simple book, but it gets students thinking about their growth as readers. They begin to use the “Me as a Reader” sections of their reading notebooks to respond to questions and quotes about reading. Their entries help us continue the conversations and thinking that we began with our informal reading interviews.

Here are some questions that we have found useful to get children thinking about their reading: Which series books do you like? Why? Is there a book from your childhood that you asked your parents to read over and over and over? Which books do you remember from the years that you were just learning to read? What was your favorite book when you were little?

We also send students home to do some research. They ask family members what they remember about the student as a reader. What were they like when they were toddlers? Which books did their parents remember reading over and over and over?

After several conversations about their lives as readers, we ask each student to look through the entries in his or her reading notebook and write a piece that puts it all together. A form along the lines of the “Reflecting on Reading” page in the appendix may be used. The students celebrate growth and change as they reflect on who they are as readers. This experience not only helps students get to know themselves, it also lets them get to know their classmates. It is an important piece in building the reading community.

During these early weeks, one of the quotes that students respond to is from Mem Fox’s book Reading Magic (2001): “Most of us think we know what reading is, and that’s not surprising. After all, we can read. But reading is tricky. Reading is complex.” When we give this quote to students and ask them to read it and to write their definition of reading, the students are sometimes confused. They groan that this kind of thinking is “too hard.” It is clear that they haven’t thought much about what reading actually means to them, or that they have a very limited definition of reading. Most of the students write just one or two sentences, almost always mentioning “figuring out words” or “getting the words right” or “sounding it out.” Only a few students mention understanding or meaning.

Redefining reading is the next step for these students. One good resource to help students redefine reading is the book Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. This is a hilarious picture book meant for very young children. With upper elementary readers the challenge is getting students to become interested in a book that clearly looks like a book written for preschool students. But the humor and the conversation about the book hooks them. In Bark, George, the text and the illustrations work together to tell the story. For a mini-lesson in September, Franki read the text aloud, one page at a time. After each page, she asked the students what they were thinking. Students shared their responses, predictions, changes in thinking, and inferences. (The surprise ending elicited the best responses.) Franki ended the lesson by asking the kids to remember all of the thinking that they did. Then she said, “Wow, if you did that much thinking in this book, imagine how much thinking you must be doing in the books you are reading during reading workshop.” Instead of defining reading for the students, Franki hoped that this lesson would begin to make them curious about what readers do. Franki could have taught her students all about the habits of effective readers. Instead, she decided to help them gradually discover for themselves what readers do and to uncover their own lives as readers.

On the following day, Franki read Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin, another amusing picture book that engages readers. This time, she asked students to use the Strategies section of their reading notebooks to track their thinking. She read the book aloud and asked students to write down their thinking as she finished each page. Once in a while, they would stop and discuss the kinds of thinking they were doing. The students were amazed at how much thinking they were doing along the way. The last page of Click, Clack, Moo is critical to the story, but it contains only an illustration, no words. After finishing the reading, Franki turned again to the last page and asked, “Was this reading?” The children started talking all at once. Some were saying, “Yes!” Some were saying, “No!” Some were saying, “Yes and no.” Some children were frustrated by the question. They argued that it couldn’t be reading because there were no words. They argued that it had to be reading because without that final page, the story would be different.

The conversation over that one page lasted twenty to thirty minutes, with Franki saying very little. The students’ definitions of reading were beginning to change. They were developing a deeper understanding of what readers do. Finally Franki stopped the conversation and asked the students to go back to the entries in their reading notebooks where they had defined reading a few days earlier. She asked them to look at their earlier definition of reading and to write what they were thinking about it now. The students were beginning to realize that reading was so much more than just “getting the words right.” Early in the year, it is the hard thinking we do around easy texts that sets the stage for future learning. Lessons like this invite kids to redefine reading for themselves and to continue to think about what reading means to them.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Reading

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