Monday, November 30, 2009

Chapter Books for Girls 6-12 Years Old

I've written a number of posts on books for boys (here) but I thought I'd do one on chapter books for girls aged 6-12 years. While one of the big challenges with boys is getting them to read, one of the biggest challenges for girls is to find age appropriate books that can satisfy the interests of the many young girls who are already avid readers by age 6-7. While picture books continue to stimulate girls up to the age of 7-8 years and beyond, they soon need the challenge of more substantial books in increasing numbers. However, junior fiction has always been the section of the market mostly poorly developed. While there are many books written for adolescents, there are far fewer written for 6-12 year olds. Here are a few ideas.

Consider books about 'real' life

Girls love to read books that portray real life situations and characters to which they can relate. This might involve the characters dealing with topics they are interested, or simply the same challenges and problems that they deal with day by day. Here are some examples:

1. 'Pippi Longstocking' by Astrid Lindgren - The are many Pippi Longstocking books; all involve the escapades of a little girl who lives with a horse and a monkey (but no parents) near a Swedish village. In spite of her unusual family arrangements girls love these books.

2. 'Anastasia Krupnik' by Lois Lowry - Anastasia is 10 and lives with her father, an English professor, and her mother an artist. She learns that her mother will be having a baby soon and struggles to come to terms with the news. An important part of the book is Anastasia's lists of things she loves, and things she hates.

3. 'Matilda', by Roald Dahl - Matilda loves reading and learning, and is very smart but struggles at home in a family that isn't quite set up for a bright child. Matilda teams up with her teacher, the beautiful Miss Honey to overcome her enemies.

4. 'Ramona the Pest', written by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Tracy Dockray - Ramona Quimby is an interesting character. She wants so much to be good, yet her boisterous and impulsive nature often get in the way. Ramona often reacts badly when she is embarrassed or hurt. Her adventures will entertain the average girl.

5. 'Penny Pollard's Diary', by Robin Klein - This is an hilarious story about a girl who loves horses and hates dresses, old people and homework. However, things change when Penny has to interview an (nearly) eighty-one year old lady for a school project. Mrs Bettany turns out to be as feisty as she is. The book in diary format (and great illustrations) tells how Penny gains friendship and in the process grows up a little.

6. 'Dear Mr. Henshaw' by Beverly Cleary - tells the story of Leigh Botts who is now in the sixth grade. He lives with his mother and moves to a new school. He is lonely and misses his father, who is a truck driver. One day Leigh's teacher assigns a letter-writing project and this changes Leigh's life.

Consider Books About Adventure

1. 'Anne of Green Gables', by L. M. Montgomery - Anne, an eleven-year-old orphan, is sent by mistake to live with a lonely, middle-aged brother and sister on a Prince Edward Island farm and proceeds to make an indelible impression on everyone around her.

2. 'Island of the Blue Dolphins', by Scott O'Dell - Left alone on a beautiful but isolated island off the coast of California, a young Indian girl spends eighteen years, not only merely surviving through her enormous courage and self-reliance, but also finding a measure of happiness in her solitary life.

3. 'Little House on the Prairie', by Laura Ingalls Wilder - There is a whole series of these books with 'Little House on the Prairie' the best known. It tells of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood in the Midwest of the USA during the late 19th century. The best known of the books is Little House on the Prairie.

4. 'Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm', by Kate Douglas Wiggin - Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is of interest to girls of all ages. Younger readers will identify with Rebecca Rowena Randall's less than perfect behaviour. Rebecca has a mind of her own and a mischievous streak. She has a big impact on the little town of Riverboro upside down.

5. 'Heidi', by Johanna Spyri - “Heidi” is an orphan delightful story about life in the Swiss Alps. She first lives with her aunt Dete, but she takes Heidi to her grandfather, an unusual old man living in an alpine cottage far from the next village. He refuses to send Heidi to school and instead she goes to the pastures, together with Peter, a shepherd boy looking after the goats. The story tells of her life in the idyllic setting.

Consider fantasy

1. 'A Wrinkle in Time', by Madeleine L'Engle - Meg Murry's father disappears while doing secret service work for the government. Things are rather strange with her father disappearing and her friends becoming involved with unearthly strangers.

2. 'The Borrowers', by Mary Norton - is a children's fantasy novel about tiny people who "borrow" things without letting people know they exist. The key characters are the Clock family, consisting of father Pod, mother Homily and their spirited thirteen year old daughter Arrietty. It won the Carnegie Medal in 1952 and was selected in 2007 as one of the ten most important children's books of the past 70 years.

3. 'Harry Potter', J.K. Rowling - is a series of 7 fantasy novels that have wide appeal to children adults. The books describe the adventures of the teenage wizard Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The central core theme of the books centres on Harry's struggle against the evil wizard Lord Voldemort who killed Harry's parents in his quest to conquer the world and in particular, the supernatural world.

3. 'Peter Pan', J.M. Barrie - this book centres on the story of the mischievous boy Peter Pan who can fly and refuses to grow up. Peter spends his never-ending childhood pursuing adventures on the island of Neverland in charge of a gang, the Lost Boys who meet mermaids, Indians, fairies and pirates and the occasional normal child.

4. 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) - written in 1865, this is the story of a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole into an amazing world of strange animals and unlikely situations. Carroll plays around with logic and taken for granted assumptions of the world. His silliness is part of the amazing appeal of this book.

5. 'Shatterbelt', by Colin Thiele - Tracy is puzzled by strange mind pictures that suddenly appear. When one of these visions helps to save the life of her two best friends her life changes.

Consider History

I've written a previous post on the value of historical fiction (here), Here are a few examples that girls seem to like.

1. 'Little House on the Prairie', by Laura Ingalls Wilder - This story deals with a year in the life of two young girls growing up on the Wisconsin frontier, as they help their mother with the daily chores, enjoy their father's stories and singing, and share special occasions when they get together with relatives or neighbours.

2. 'Number the Stars', by Lois Lowry - In 1943, during the German occupation of Denmark, ten-year-old Annemarie learns how to be brave and courageous when she helps shelter her Jewish friend from the Nazis.

3. 'Playing Beattie Bow', by Ruth Park - When Abigail Kirk joins in a traditional chanting game of 'Beatie Bow' in modern day Sydney she sees a mysterious urchin girl in the background and follows her. Unwittingly she stumbles into the past as she follows her up stairs and down alleys in the Rocks area of Sydney.

4. 'Callie's Castle', by Ruth Park - this story isn't as well known as the above but it is a wonderful story for girls aged 7-10. Callie Cameron is unhappy with her friend Frances, her family and life in general. With her brothers and sister always annoying her she is desperate for a space to call her own. This changes when her grandfather helps her find a solution at her new house.

5. 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit', by Judith Kerr - Anna was only 9 years old in 1933 when Adolf Hitler emerged in the Germany of her youth. But as a Jewish girl she was soon to find that her world had changed when her father went missing.

Consider book series

Book series are also of great interest to girls. The appeal of book series is that the character's are familiar from one book to the next, as generally are the settings, plots and situations. This familiarity makes reading faster, easier and somehow more 'comfortable'. Here are a few examples that many girls like.

'Nancy Drew', by Carolyn Keene
'Bobbsey Twins', by Laura Lee Hope
'Secret Seven', by Enid Blyton
'Mrs Pepperpot', Alf Proysen
'Anne of Green Gables', L.M. Montgomery
'Chronicles of Narnia', by C.S. Lewis
'Baby-sitters Club', by Anne M. Martin
'Trixie Belden', by Julie Campbell Tatham
'Hannah' series, by Libby Gleeson
'Anastasia Krupnik', by Lois Lowry

Consider biographies

Biographies are worth a try with many girls. For example:

'The Diary of Anne Frank', by Anne Frank
'So Much To Tell You', by John Marsden
'Amelia Earhart: Young Aviator', by Beatrice Gormley.
'Helen Keller', by Margaret Davidson
'Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe', by Charles Edward Stowe

Consider Specific Authors

While not wanting to attempt a comprehensive list, parents and teachers can help girls to finds authors whose work they enjoy. Here are a few that some girls I've known seem to enjoy and want to revisit.

Roald Dahl - e.g. 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', 'Fantastic Mr Fox', 'Matilda' and 'James and the Giant Peach'
Libby Gleeson - e.g. 'Hannah the Famous' and 'Dear Writer'
Patricia Wrightson - e.g. 'A Little Fear'
Robin Klein - e.g. ‘Boss of the Pool’, 'Hating Alison Ashley'
Emily Rodda - e.g. 'Dog Tales'
Colin Thiele - e.g. 'Jody's Journey', 'Shatterbelt' and 'Storm Boy'.
Betsy Byars - e.g. ‘The Eighteenth Emergency’, 'Pinballs'

I hope the above ideas are helpful. Please note that not all of the above suggestions will suit your children. Children's tastes obviously vary and of course age will make a difference to the appropriateness of some titles. I've written separately about helping children to choose books (here). Finally, the above suggestions are not meant to be the definitive list. I'd welcome your suggestions.

Related Posts

All posts on children's literature (here)

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Importance of 'Simple' Play

The erosion of time for play

As I wrote in a post last year, children's play is seen by psychologists, educators and paediatricians as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a right of every child. But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded that many "....children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play."

Major child rearing agencies, early childhood associations, paediatric groups and government agencies with responsibility for children and families have been raising serious questions about declining spare time, and in particular unstructured playtime for young children. For example, in a recent edition of the Belfast Telegraph a report from 300 teachers, psychologists and children's authors claimed that the erosion of "unstructured, loosely supervised" playtime is dangerously affecting young people's health.

In our 'time poor' age where all parents want their children to be successful in life, there is a temptation to concentrate children's spare time on structured activities. But this may not be the best thing for them. The growth of programs like 'Your Baby Can Read' (reviewed on this blog here & here) is just one example of how this is happening. The program seeks to teach children to read from as early as 6-9 months. Play is critical for children's development; it isn't an optional extra in their lives.

The loss of 'simple' play

There is also a tendency in our age to buy children lots of complex toys that don't necessarily add much to their development anyway. Louisa recently made a useful comment about this on the 4th part of my earlier series on play (here) that I did last year. Far too often, modern toys that are lavished on most children in developed countries do little to develop creativity, problem solving and knowledge. Notwithstanding the fact that you buy wonderful educational toys that can stimulate development, unstructured and spontaneous play offers the best opportunities for the development of creativity, problem solving and learning.

In an interesting article, 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness', Elizabeth Jones has argued that:
In their play, children invent the world for themselves and create a place for themselves in it. They are re-creating their pasts and imagining their futures, while grounding themselves in the reality and fantasy of their lives here-and-now.
In the article I referred to earlier by Kenneth Ginsburg, he concludes that:
  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
  • Play is important to healthy brain development.
  • Through play, children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
  • Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
  • Through play children can also conquer their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
  • As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
  • When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
  • Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.
A simple example of creative unstructured play

I've shared many examples on this blog of unstructured and semi-structured play (check out all posts on play here). A recent example occurred just last week. I was visiting my daughter's for dinner and had a couple of hours to play with her three children (my grandchildren). My wife Carmen had bought two inexpensive packets ($2 each) of multi-coloured modelling clay with some adhesive eyes in the packets. I simply asked all three grandchildren would they like to make something. I joined in (as I often do). This is how the activity unfolded.

All three children chose some colours (I limited them to three sticks of clay at first to share the two packets three ways). Rebecca (5) and Elsie (almost 3) started making animals (a turtle, sheep, snake...), while Jacob (7) began making an invented animal with special body armour. Jacob's animal inspired me to make a strange space creature from a long thin sausage of clay; I called it a "Squiggle Monster". This led Jacob to create another even more unusual fox-like space creature. This led me to build a laser canon "for protection" against all the space creatures. The girls continued to independently create their animals. Rebecca wandered off to play another word game and Elsie kept making (and re-making) more animals.

Above: Rebecca's animals (left) and Elsie's (right)

Jacob and I had now developed quite a collection of strange space creatures and soon their destinies began to merge as we chattered about their bodies, dangerous protective weapons, sounds and so on. Barricades were built, several laser weapons positioned, force shields activated. And then...the battle began (with the demands of dinner all the while pressing in on us as we played on the dining table!). This simple activity generated lots of stimulation for all three children but in particular (on this occasion) for Jacob and Elsie. There was lots of creative thought, problem solving, hypothesising, rich language being used and so on:

"What colour can a Squiggle Monster be?" (Grandad) "Any" (Jacob)
"See these three eyes. They can see 500km." (Jacob)
"How does a Squiggle Monster die? I know, he just unravels." (Grandad)
"He's spitting acid." (Jacob)
"What's this animal Grandad?" (Elsie)
"Do you know why he can't get through the force field?" (Jacob)
"If I make this bigger will it stop them?" (Grandad)
"Look at mine Grandad". (Rebecca)
"See his rotating antennae?" (Jacob)
"What's a laser Grandad?" (Elsie)

Play doesn't need complex toys or structured activities for learning to occur, in fact, there is good evidence to suggest that play of the above type does more for creativity, problems solving, language and learning than lots of expensive toys.

Some quick practical implications from the above

So play is critical to children's development, and time is essential to create 'space' for play. There are challenges here for parents and teachers. How do we resist the temptation to structure children's life in and out of school so much that there is little opportunity for play? As well, how do we encourage children to spend time with other children engaging in play? Here are some quick suggestions:
  • Parents and teachers need to create and promote regular opportunities for free play.
  • Play should be as active as possible and where possible encourage interaction with others.
  • Remember that simplicity usually works best (remember the tendency of the baby to like the box rather than the toy!)
  • Play needs to be as child-centred as possible, not teacher centred or parent centred.
  • Try to provide access to materials and simple toys that stimulate imagination, creativity and problem solving.
  • Parents, teachers and caregivers should try to provide as much spontaneous time and play as possible.
  • Make good use of story, most play involves some type of inventive story telling.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers need to spend more time being good listeners and observers of children at play and be prepared to respond to, assist, offer materials, engage and ask questions rather than simply correcting, redirecting and controlling such play.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers should sponsor and support children having a range of interests that can be the springboard for play and learning.
Evaluating your child's play

If you wonder whether your child has sufficient good opportunities for play you might ask yourself the following questions:
How often does my child (or my children) have time for spontaneous play?
How often do I direct the play rather than responding to or supporting it?
How varied are my child's opportunities for play?
How often does my child have the opportunity to interact with others in creative play situations?
How often do I provide materials for creative play?
How often does my child's play stimulate creativity, problem solving, language use and learning?
How often do planned activities lead to creative play (e.g. TV or a story leads to play. Or, a lesson on some topic leads to playground play)?
What are your thoughts? Any ideas that seem to work?

Related links and resources

All posts on Play from this blog (HERE)

A recent post on creativity (mainly for teachers) HERE and another (mainly for parents) HERE

All my posts with relevance to creativity (HERE)

Elizabeth Jones article 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness'

Kenneth R. Ginsburg's report on play

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Getting Boys into Reading Through Fiction

I wrote a post about getting boys into books through non-fiction recently (here) and thought I should do a second post in relation to fiction.

Helping boys to become readers of literature

We all know that boys can be more reluctant to read. They tend to speak later and read later than girls. As well, boys are less likely to want to be read to or spend time looking at books. But as I have said before (here & here), we also know what it takes to get them more interested. While using non-fiction is a great way to get boys actually reading, it is also very important to raise their interest in reading fiction. It is out of the reading of literature that so much knowledge of language develops as well as a whole range of study and research skills that are important for life (see my previous posts on the 'Power of Literature'). So all the ideas and suggestions in this post have the single motivation of getting boys more interested in narrative and the reading of literature. I've said some of the introductory things before on this blog but I'll summarise and elaborate some of these again:

1. Boys are more likely to be pick up books and read them when the books and the reading event offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things.

2. Fathers and mothers need to work hard at listening to and reading with their sons. Reading to and with adults should be enjoyable, not boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

3. Fathers have a key role to play in boys' literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).

4. Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help boys choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it this will be a disincentive.

Some ideas that I know work with younger boys

If you can't get your 3-5 year old boy to listen to a story try one of these ideas to turn them around:

1. Storytelling as a starting point - You might start by telling stories, preferably with the child in it. Here's the gist of one I told to my 3 year old grandson on Saturday just before he went to bed. "Once there was a boy named Samuel. Sam got up one day and heard a strange sound in the back yard. He went out and saw the bushes moving. He walked to wards the bushes and pulled them apart, it was a cat. "Meow", said the cat. "Go away", said Sam. He heard another noise behind him and turned slowly to see a furry tail disappear under the veranda. "What's that?" said Sam. This recipe story proceeded with Sam discovering a duck, fox, snake and so on. By the 2nd or 3rd animal Sam was already suggesting the next animal and trying to contribute to the story. This simple strategy helps to enhance story prediction, and teaches children about plot, story structure and so on. It's hardly a great story, but that's not the point, it's a way to usher them into the narrative form to engage them! Once they begin to enjoy story telling they should be more able to listen to stories that you read.

2. Dramatic reading - Once you start to read books to your young children, try to do it dramatically. Try to include lots of action, loud noises and maybe a rumble half way through (when the wolf eats Grandma, or the boy gets falls out of the tree). Be dramatic, get their attention!

3. Fractured stories - Read a story that they've heard before but mess up the story line as you go along. My grandchildren love this and soon start contributing. "Grandad, make him say...." This is probably how writers invented fractured fairy tales. The first little pig built his house from straw, but he wasn't stupid, so he used super glue to hold the straw together. The wolf knocked at the door and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." The pig replied, "No, no, no, I've used super glue, get lost." "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow you're house down," roared the wolf. "Two chances wolfey, get lost" and so on. It doesn't matter if the story logic breaks down, they will still love it anyway.

4. Using toys and play objects to create stories - One of the reasons boys like Thomas the Tank Engine is that they are introduced to the simple story lines through television or books and then can retell them with the trains. At first they will want to simply retell known Thomas stories, but eventually they will begin to invent their own stories that build on the personalities and characteristics of the trains in the books. As well as Thomas trains, toy cars, planes, plastic animals, superheroes and so on, all lend themselves to this type of improvised storytelling. Storytelling of this kind is laying the foundations for reading and writing.

5. Television and Videos - Use stories that they've enjoyed seeing on Television or on DVDs as a way in. Follow the viewing of a favourite show (e.g. 'Bob the Builder') with a book version based on the show or the characters.

Some ideas that work with older boys

If your older boys are reluctant to read, the issues (and the solutions) are still similar to those facing young boys:
They may find reading hard - help to make it easier for them.
They may find it hard to find suitable books - help them to find them.
The reading material may lack interest for them - find better books or use varied materials.
When faced with boys 10 years and up I always find that the above three issues in some combination are the blockers to boys reading. Some boys can read but are clueless about choosing appropriate books. Others have lots of interests but are hopeless at reading and so they tend to flick pages, look at pictures and do everything possible to avoid reading the words.

Here are a few things that I have found that have worked:

1. Helping them to find a suitable book - This starts with getting the topic and difficulty right and reading it with them. Negotiate who starts first and then read. At first try to read more than the child and always start by reading the first few pages, maybe even the first chapter. This helps them to get into the book. Make the task easy for them, don't turn every session into a word decoding lesson; do this in other sessions. As appropriate make small comments on the plot or story line to help them follow the emerging plot. I've written previously on this blog about reading with and to your children (here).

2. Try reading books stimulated by other media - As suggested for younger children, you might try reading something first experienced with other media. For example, choose a book that relates to a film that they've seen and like. For example, your child might enjoy watching 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' but not be keen to read the book. But why not read the book in instalments after having seen the movie. There are so many wonderful videos available of books that boys will enjoy.

3. Align books with your children's interests - Try to choose literature for them that align with some of their interests in reading and viewing non-fiction. If they have an interest in exploration and adventure they might just enjoy reading
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. Or, they are fascinated by war then they love reading 'The Machine Gunners' (Robert Westall) with you. Also be aware that forms of visual support (pictures, diagrams, photos etc) all help to support the reading and build interest. Books that have some illustrations always help.

Following on from the last point don't be afraid to use graphic novels (see my previous posts that deal with this literature form here).

Some books to try with boys

Here are some books that should capture the interest of lots of boys. I'm not trying to be comprehensive; it's just a sample.

1. For boys aged 3-5 years

'In My Backyard', Nette Hilton & Anne Spudvilas
'Looking for Crabs', Bruce Whatly
'Mr Archimedes Bath', Pamela Allen
'The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek', Jenny Wagner
'The Fisherman and the Theefyspray', Jane Tanner
'Terry's Brrrmmm GT', Ted Greenwood
'Where the Wild Things Are', Maurice Sendak
Where the Forest Meets the Sea', Jeannie Baker

2. For boys 6-8 years

'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day', Judith Viorst
‘Charlotte’s Web’, by E. B. White
‘Dragon ride’, by Helen Cresswell
‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, by Roald Dahl
‘Grandma Cadbury’s Trucking Tales’, Di Bates
‘James and the Giant Peach’, by Roald Dahl
‘Mr. Popper's Penguins’, by Richard & Florence Atwater
‘Superfudge’, by Judy Blume
‘The BFG’, by Roald Dahl
‘The Shrinking of Treehorn’, by Florence Parry Heide
‘The 27th Annual African Hippopotamus Race’, by Morris Lurie
‘The Eighteenth Emergency’, by Betsy Byars
‘The Iron Man’, by Ted Hughes
‘The enemies’, by Robin Klein
‘The lion, the witch and the wardrobe’, by C.S. Lewis
‘The Twits’, by Roald Dahl
‘The turbulent term of Tyke Tiler’, by Gene Kemp
'The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales', by Jon Scieszka

3. For boys aged 9-11

‘Boy’, by Roald Dahl
‘Callie’s castle’, by Ruth Park
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Roald Dahl
‘Charlie up a gum tree’, by E. A. Schurmann
'Encyclopedia Brown', by Donald J. Sobol
‘Foggy’, by Allan Baillie
‘Frog thunder’, by Jill Morris
‘James and the giant peach’, by Roald Dahl
‘Just So Stories’, by Rudyard Kipling
‘Matilda’, by Roald Dahl
‘Mike’, by Brian Caswell
‘Misery Guts’, by Morris Gleitzman
‘The adventures of Stuart Little’, by Daphne Skinner
'The Chronicles of Narnia' by C.S. Lewis
'The Adventures of Captain Underpants', by Dav Pilkey
‘Storm Boy’, by Colin Thiele

Some related links

The importance of literature (here)
How to listen to your child reading (here)
Supporting comprehension (here)
Helping children to choose books (here)
The benefits of repeated reading of literature (here)
You can read all of my posts on boys (here)

Monday, November 9, 2009

How drawing 'Sketch to Stretch' Can Improve Comprension

How and why do we teach comprehension?

Some see ‘comprehension’ as an old fashioned term that has lost its relevance in the ‘digital age’. I don’t see it this way. Helping children to comprehend better involves helping them to remember, understand, enjoy, learn from and critique what they read (or see, hear or experience for that matter). It is a term that recognizes that the creators of literature, non-fiction books, film, video games, performance and so on, have meaning intent and purpose in mind when they have done so. In a previous post (here) I said:

“I think the term comprehension still has great relevance because it is a reminder that as readers, viewers and web surfers we need to be able to understand, interpret, appreciate and critique what we read, view, hear and even experience.”

As well as having written previously on this blog in more general terms about the way parents and teachers can encourage and improve comprehension, I’ve also written extensively about comprehension in my various books (for example here and here) and in articles in academic journals. Before I get to the strategies here’s a quick comment on ‘deep reading’.

Reading ‘deeply’

One of aims as supporters of children’s reading is to encourage ‘deep’ reading of any book. For example, with the reading of literature we want children not only to be able to read the words and follow a basic narrative plot, we want them to be able to read ‘deeply’. We want them to grasp the richness of characterization, the devices the author uses to create mood and tension, the intent and purpose of the writer and the language devices employed; all the while being moved by the text and able to reflect and respond critically to it. For the teachers reading this blog there are many different traditions that have said similar things to what I’m saying here (but from different beginning points) including ‘critical theory’, ‘reader response’ theory, ‘critical literacy’, ‘deep reading’ and even more recently ‘slow reading’. I can say more on this later if people want.

Bill Corcoran (in Corcoran & Evans, 1987) offers one example of a useful framework that reflects one of these traditions. It is a helpful way to pursue ‘deeper’ reading of text (he didn’t call it this).

Corcoran identifies four basic types of mental activity that relate to the reading of literature:
Picturing and imaging - a rich mental picture.
Anticipating and restrospecting - about upcoming events, or reflecting on the ideas in the book.
Engagement and construction – becoming emotionally involved in the text, identifying with characters and situations.
Valuing and evaluating - making judgements about a text and its worth, as well as applying their own value judgements to the events and situations that unfold.
So how do you help children to become deep readers? I thought I’d do a series of practical posts on comprehension strategies that work for children aged 7+. All are ideas that I’ve used with children. I’ll focus on one strategy at a time and will build the list up over time. You can find many of them in my book ‘Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work’ (1990) which while out of print is still in university libraries and used copies are available in many places on the web (e.g. here). I also intend to produce a new book in the next year or so that covers the same ground soon.

A Strategy that Works

‘Sketch to Stretch’ (Cairney, 1990) is essentially a strategy that involves asking children to sketch in response to reading, hearing or even viewing a story. It was first developed and researched by Marjorie Siegel (see Harste, Pierce & Cairney, 1985), and requires the reader to use drawing to 'stretch' or enhance the meaning as they are reading. This can occur during and after reading (there is even a place for drawing as an ‘advance organizer’ before reading but that’s another post). It can involve varied directions including:
Draw a picture to show what just happened.
Draw a picture to show what he/she [insert character name] did, lost, saw, heard etc.
Draw a picture that shows what might happen next.
Draw a picture of [insert character].
The sketches at the beginning of this post and below (all taken from my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension'), show just some of the responses from a group of 10 year-old children I had been teaching. I had interrupted a reading of the graphic novel ‘The Wedding Ghost’ (1985) written by Leon Garfield and illustrated by Charles Keeping.

The book is set in the late 19th century, in a small village in Hertfordshire in the East Region of 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 (a class of 10 year old children), I 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. The class was also told that Garfield spends a great deal of time making sure the details of life in different times and places are accurate.

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 pages in 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), genie’s lamp letter and so. The sketches give 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 presumably 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.

Summing up

Sketch to Stretch does do as its name implies, it stretches children’s understanding, and their knowledge of and appreciation of literature. It also 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 gives 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 Posts

Previous posts on 'Text Sets' (here)

Previous posts that relate to 'Graphic Novels' (here)