Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sketching and imagination as tools for close reading and comprehension

*This is a revised version of a post I wrote a couple of years ago.

Every teacher wants to help children to read deeply, to grasp the richness of characterisation, the devices the author uses to create mood and tension, the intent and purpose of the writer and the language devices employed. We also want them to be moved by the text and able to reflect and respond critically to it. I've written lots of posts about comprehension, but in this one I want to revisit a previously discussed strategy that I've used with children aged 3 to 12 years and which I continue to see as one of the most powerful comprehension strategies I have used.

‘Sketch to Stretch’ is essentially a strategy that involves asking children to sketch in response to reading, hearing or even viewing a story. It requires them to use drawing to 'stretch' or enhance the meaning as they are reading. You can do it during and after reading and there is even a place for drawing as an ‘advance organizer’ before reading, but that’s another post. It can involve varied directions including:

Sketch what just happened.
Sketch what he/she [insert character name] did, lost, saw, heard etc.
Sketch how this [insert and event] makes you feel.
Sketch a picture that shows what might happen next.
Sketch a picture of [insert character].

The sketches on the left are from my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension', and show just some of the responses from a group of 10 year-old children I had been teaching as part of a research project. I had interrupted a reading of the graphic novel ‘The Wedding Ghost’ (1985) written by Leon Garfield and illustrated by Charles Keeping.

Garfield's book is set in the late 19th century, in a small village in Hertfordshire in England. Like all of Garfield’s books it is rich in historical detail and a depth of language and mastery of storytelling that few children’s authors have ever achieved. The book tells the story of a young couple (Gillian and Jack) who are about to be married. It follows the normal sequence of events for a wedding in the 19th century, beginning with the invitation, preparations, then the rehearsal, present opening, more preparations and eventually the wedding.

Much of the story centres on a journey taken by Jack after he opens an unusual gift addressed only to him. This is the first moment of intrigue. Jack sets off armed with an old map sent by an unknown person, and the events and discoveries that lead ultimately to the dramatic events of the wedding and the outcome.

On the occasion that sketches above were drawn I had introduced the book by sharing the title, showing the cover and then explaining a little about the author. I told the class that Leon Garfield usually wrote what is known as historical fiction, and that this is the writing of fictional stories that are inspired by real events, setting and characters.

I interrupted my oral reading after a few minutes at a point where Jack is to open the mysterious present. This is just a few from the start of the story and the guests are gathered around watching the groom to be. People are making jokes and speculating about the gift and why it might just have his name on it.

I asked my students to quickly sketch what the gift might be. As you can see from the sample of the sketches, the responses varied greatly and included a ghost, map (an uncanny prediction), book, hourglass (suggesting time), a genie’s lamp letter and so. The sketches offer an insight into the level and depth of children’s comprehension of this complex picture book up to this point. As well, they illustrate that they are trying to make sense of what’s going on, where the story might go next and the extent to which they are picking up on the themes in Garfield’s book. As well, they show something of their literary history and the background knowledge that they bring to the reading and the sketching.

Even when children drew the same object there was great diversity. For example, a number of students drew ghosts probably basing their prediction upon the book's title (there had been nothing explicit in the text to suggest this); and yet, the drawings showed a diverse range of ghosts. One student drew a genie type 'ghost' emerging from lamps, several drew 'Casper like' ghosts and others drew ghosts more human in form. Each reflected different literary histories and background knowledge. Where they were at the point of the sketch involved each in a different literary journey and experience of this book.

Summing up

'Sketch to Stretch' as its name implies, stretches children’s understanding, and their knowledge of and appreciation of literature. It is enhanced of course by discussion and skilful teaching, as sketches are shared and responded to by students as well as the teacher. It isn't really an easy strategy; in fact it is a very sophisticated multimodal strategy that requires reading, discussion, response, drawing and sometimes writing in association with it. It can also be used with film in a similar way to the way I used it with the 'Wedding Ghost'.

One of the strengths of Sketch to Stretch and in fact drawing generally, is that it offers an alternative to word-based strategies for heightening engagement. Each response whether it is written, spoken, drawn or displayed in any form, helps children to read more ‘deeply’. The sketches also help us to understand how our children are empathizing with characters, evaluating the text, what they are predicting will come next, how they are reflecting upon earlier events, how they are connecting with life situations and so on. This offers us greater insight into our children’s comprehension as they read and it helps us to enrich the mental journey children are making as they read a book.

Related Resources

Previous posts on 'Comprehension' (here)

'Pathways to Literacy', Trevor H. Cairney (1995). This is a book I wrote and which has more material on reading comprehension and 'Sketch to Stretch'. 


Lisa Seeley said...

This sounds like a great idea to aid in comprehension. I can totally see how by sketching, students might be better able to depict how they think characters feel. It would be interesting to see how the sketches give insight into students' interpretations of the text in a way that words may not show. Sometimes a picture can be more informative than words. I am considering incorporating this into my classroom, particularly as an option for student response on independent reading logs. I do have some concerns that I hope you can address. What about the students who want to turn any simple sketch assignment that should take a few minutes into an art project that would take hours to complete to satisfy them? Currently, my students complete choice board activities after finishing reading a book. A few of those options involve some form of illustrating, like sketching out a comic strip retelling the main events of the book. I have had students literally take hours completing these assignments even though I have reminded them they only need to be simple sketches. I need some advice on how to handle this so that students don't lose sight of the goal of such projects. Thank you!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Lisa, thanks for your great comment. I'm glad you use drawing in your room. Sketching is fantastic with reading whether shared or independent. The problem of children spending hours when minutes would do is a bit more tricky. You'll perhaps need to spend some time talking about the purpose of the drawing and what you value when you look at them (e.g. it might be the idea, the creativity, it's help in solving a problem, how it helped their understanding etc). I suspect that children receive lots of praise for the drawings they labour on at home, with friends and even at school. Some also use it as a vehicle for mindfulness, you can get lost in drawing and colouring! Thanks for taking the time to comment.