The language that we choose to use with kids helps them create worlds—to imagine where they are, who they are, and what they’re supposed to do. Feedback that judges pushes children to think of things as fixed—intelligence, ability, personality. Once they have a sense that those things are fixed and they can’t do anything about them, then we’re sunk.
— Peter Johnston
Last month at the National Reading Recovery conference, Stenhouse authors Peter Johnston and Pat Johnson (Catching Readers Before They Fall, One Child at a Time) chatted about Peter’s new book, Opening Minds. Listen to this excerpt in which Peter discusses the difference between fixed and dynamic frames of learning, and gives examples of how specific language can move kids toward one frame or the other:
I often recommend that teachers in upper elementary grades use short texts for struggling readers during guided reading. It’s so much easier to focus in on the students’ comprehension, or lack of understanding, when the lesson is centered on a poem, short story, or something equally as short. On occasion a teacher will ask, “But where do I find these short texts?”
My list of short texts includes five ideas: poetry, non-fiction articles, short stories or vignettes, excerpts from the book you are reading aloud to the whole class, and picture books.
Poetry. Poems often say a lot in very few words. They are perfect opportunities for students to dig deeper and create the meaning behind the poem. They can be read and reread easily enough and struggling readers often discover more each time they experience the poem. Poetry abounds with metaphors, figurative language, subtle humor, and other inferring opportunities. Take Jean Little’s poem called “Clothes” in her book Hey, World Here I Am. She uses the first stanza to talk about what’s great about new clothes and then the second stanza to say why old clothes are so terrific also. But it’s the last line that gets kids delving deeper into the poem’s meaning. “You know, it’s a funny thing… Friends are like clothes.”
Non-fiction articles. Many teachers worry that in order to match their upper grade struggling readers with appropriate texts, they have to use “baby books.” There is nothing babyish about non-fiction articles. Check out some of the interesting topics in kids magazines, such as, Muse, Click, National Geographic for Kids, Time for Kids, and so on. I’ve learned so much about giant squid, climbing Mt. Everest, making jam from cactus flowers, what spiders do, and more, along with the kids I work with. Struggling readers, more often than not, love non-fiction. So spend a little time in your school or public library skimming through some of those magazines and look for a few articles that would spark your students’ interests.
Short stories and vignettes. I love Cynthia Rylant’s book Every Living Thing. Each story is about a person and an animal. The stories include real dilemmas, interesting issues, and sometimes, sad endings. But they always leave the kids with lots to talk about as they negotiate the meaning of the text together, connect with the characters, and give their opinions about what happened in the plot or what should have happened. Not all of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories are appropriate for grades 3-6, however, I’ve used several of them from her books House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek. Jean Little’s Hey, World, Here I Am is another great resource these short vignettes.
Excerpts from your read aloud book. I often see teachers reading aloud great chapter books to their upper grade students and I can’t think of anything better for developing community. But sometimes the discussions around these texts are dominated by the “talkers” in the classroom. Why not revisit sections of the book with struggling readers in a small group setting to offer them more opportunities to respond? Look for a part of the book that has potential for discussions beyond the literal level, like the climax of the plot or a major turning point.
Picture Books. We are so lucky to live in a time when wonderful picture books are available for upper grade students. Even though most elementary school book rooms may not have multiple copies of picture books, with a little effort you can round up three or four copies for the students in that one special guided reading group, even if the kids have to partner-up on reading them. Try any of the ones listed here and you’ll see that your struggling readers can get hooked on books, want to reread them to find more support for their opinions, and are actually willing to practice their fluency in texts like these.
•Voices in the Park, Anthony Browne
•Faithful Elephants, Yukio Tsuchiya
•Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Chris Van Allsburg
•Emma’s Rug, Allen Say
•The Enemy, Davide Cali
•The Bracelet, Y. Uchida
•Nettie’s Trip South, Ann Turner
•Freedom Summer, Deborah Wiles