Thursday, December 31, 2009

Letting Books Get Under Your Skin

Yesterday I talked about actively making images in your mind when you read. This is a learned skill, and children need to develop it.

Here's something wierd - when we are children, we feel instinctively. There is no Ho-hum attitude in life. I am reminded of this daily with Nick, my almost 2 year old. When he feels something, he expresses it intensely. Huge peals of laughter or tantrums on the floor with tears streaming down his face...he makes it known how he feels.

But as we grow up, we tamper it...yes, it is appropriate that we don't throw ourselves on the floor when we are upset (although we may feel like it sometimes), but we numb ourselves in some ways.

When I read books with kids, they are often surprised. Not because I am sooo fabulous at reading aloud to kids, but because I REACT. I laugh, I cry, I question why -- I FEEL. "Hey, you're crying!" I hear them say, astonished. I ask them if they have ever seen someone cry over a book, and many of them say no. "My mom cries at Extreme Home Makeover," they may say, but not books. Hmmm....what do they see? What are we modelling? Do they see YOU read? Again, a subject for later.

Nothing bugs me more than seeing blank stares and hearing crickets as I am reading a book aloud to kids. When that happens, I know they are numb...not allowing the characters to touch them. Now, I am not saying they need to be bursting into tears at every turn of the page, but when a pet dies and they look at me with no reaction, I have to say, "Isn't that sad, ya'll?" It's funny, because once I ask those kind of questions, they suddenly feel like they have permission to feel. "Boy, that makes me mad that the boy was bullied -- how about you? How do you feel?"

Allowing yourself to be affected by books means you are engaged with it. That is foundational to enjoying reading.

Here's the thing. Remember I told you about The Yearling. It is the first book I remember tears and sobs. I remember thinking, "No, he can't have to do what I think..." I was completely engrossed. And I'm a city girl. I have no real connection to living in the woods and hunting, the main character is a boy, and I have never had a deer. But I connected to loving a pet. To nurture, to caring. That book was a lifechanger for me. There are only a few lifechanging books in one's life. I call those landmarks. You can remember them forever, and they have made a difference in you in some way.

I have a landmark author too. Eve Bunting. I can't wait for you to hear about her.

There are other ways besides sadness...laughter, anger, anticipation, wonder...any emotion.

If your child is struggling, you may want to get texts that they can feel about. Humor is always a great way to start. Laughter is awesome. Then move to something deeper.

Here's what I do with my Third Graders: I begin with author studies and we enjoy and laugh with Mo Willems. I move into Mark Teague who has a wild imagination and characters about their age. He also has a great series Dear Ms. LaRue, that has some intense vocabulary imbedded (I do some work on using context to understand tougher words). From there, Kevin Henkes' mice have adventures kids can relate to that are lighthearted, and then we take the leap into Sharon Creech's LOVE THAT DOG. If you haven't read it, it is a must. I love that book. We will hit on that later. That is the book where I see so many breakthroughs in feelings.

So, go ahead. It's the New Year...make one of your resolutions to allow yourself to let those feelings flow - and teach your kids.

You all didn't guess I was a Psych major in college, did you????

Blessings on a Fabulous New Year. I am hoping that it brings amazing opportunities for you!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Making Pictures in the Mind

Yesterday I was reminded when I was writing about illustrations in books that I wanted to talk about a crucial part of reading.

In order for understanding (comprehension) to occur, the reader needs to be able to picture what is happening. This breakdown usually happens when kids are transitioning from easier books that have pictures on each page to easy chapter books where there are more words and less text. There are a number of roadblocks to this happening, and I want to give a couple suggestions.

One thing you can do with ANY book, pictures or not, is ask them to describe the action they are seeing in their heads. Pictures in a book are static...we want them to have motion in their heads, like they are playing a movie. At first, you need to model this for them. Look at a picture and describe the characters' actions, the smells you imagine, the sounds you hear, the things you feel. Then they can try their hands at it. The more you do it, the better those picturing muscles, what educators call envisioning, will be.

Sometimes, children are so focused on decoding the words, that they aren't really getting what is happening. That is where those Just Right books come in...they need to go down to a level where they are not struggling to sound out every word. I know there are attitudinal issues there...try telling a third grader they aren't ready for Harry Potter -- I have been there. Here's what I say. I tell them their brain muscles aren't strong enough for that to be happening independently, but we will get there. Right now, if they are dying to read Harry Potter, they need to do it with someone.

Reading with/to your child is an easy opportunity to build those picture making skills in their minds. To see if they are able to make pictures, I start with small chunks of descriptive text. Some of my favorites come from Roald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- have you ever really focused on how he describes each child -- it's hilarious, and very graphic. You or they read it, and then you give them paper, pencil, crayons, and markers. See if they can draw them (no points for artistic quality). Now, if your child isn't ready for Roald Dahl, you can use anything they are reading. If their drawings are limited, talk with them. Ask them - how old are the characters? What color hair, eyes, etc? What clues do we get from the story about them? If they are at school, what do you imagine the classroom looks like?

Now, much of what kids picture comes from actual experience. If they have been to a school, that's what will be in their minds when a story talks about school -- there are two things to remember here: One, that they need to make those connections, but they need to make sure that if the author has given specifics, that they have that picture in their minds. Secondly, some kids haven't had experiences - say, going to the beach -- they need help --maybe magazine pictures or nonfiction text that helps support their being able to understand.

Here's something I have noticed, and it is HUUUUUUGGGE. Lots of times, it's not because of lack of experience. Most children's authors these days make their stories very relatable to kids.

The PROBLEM???? Kids are not ACTIVATING their BRAINS when they are reading.

You know exactly what they go many times have we gotten to the end of a page and not remembered it? We went back and read two or three times because our minds wandered, right? Well, kids' minds wander (a lot) and they need to train it to focus and work when they are reading. I know, we can blame it on TV, video games, are too passive, blah blah blah...I am not here to stand on that soap box. My kids watch TV -- but they also read.

What we need to do with them initially is stop and ask them to tell us the pictures they are seeing. If they say nothing...that's the problem. Instead of asking questions like Where are they? What color was the cat they were chasing? We need to ask: When they were in the classroom, what did you picture? What sounds did you hear during the part you just read? We will get a clear understanding of whether they were understanding through answers to those kinds of questions. Spend time. It takes time. Getting them to do this is hard work, and you may get resistance. Don't give up.

I think back to my own reading days. We got those worksheets asking the who/what/when questions...things I could have just lifted from the text if I went back and scanned. I was the kind of reader who was raised on the SRA kits -- anyone? -- where you answered questions on these cards and moved up a level until you "beat" the whole system. Now, I passed every one, but probably couldn't have told you a thing about any of them after I did them. I was guided in my understanding by what I was going to have to tell someone else.

THAT'S what testing does to readers.

Anyhow, if we can get kids to play the movie, they will have all those who/what/wheres, AND a good comprehension of the story as a whole.

I remember vividly the first book that changed was The Yearling. I actually allowed the pictures to form in my head. I remember "seeing" the little boy and the fawn, Flag.

So try and picture will lead to another key of comprehension...allowing the reading to affect you. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

It's Cold Outside, but Perfect for Reading

It 's been typical Winter weather here in Austin, with warm 40 degree days -- I know, it's warmer than other places and I am not shovelling snow to go anywhere! My boys and I have been reading a lot. We've tried a couple new series, and I wanted to tell you my thoughts, and theirs.

So I read a book called Rich by Nikki Grimes - I really liked it. It teaches kids to be themselves, and I later went to her website, which was really great. Her main character is a young African American girl, and I like that because there aren't a whole lot out there. I think girls would like this book and it is an early reader - say second grade, early third.

I also read Applewood Elementary -- First Day, by Nancy Krulik. It is an early reader, and deals with a boy who doesn't want to go to first grade. He resists enjoying school until they have an adventure with a class pet. I liked it - it was relatable, and had quite a bit of dialogue between kids - which would be perfect if your child needs to work on expression in fluency. You could take turns acting out the characters by reading their talk aloud.

If there is sibling rivalry in your home, your kids will like Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. Henry loves playing pranks on his younger brother, Perfect Peter. I thought it was creative and funny, my boys were so-so on it. I don't know if it is because they don't have a lot of rivalry where they trick each other, but they didn't just LOVE it. There are just enough illustrations to support the reader picture what is happening without totally painting the scenario for them. I like books that entice them with a few pictures, but require them to still create the "movie" of the story in their minds. Ohh...I have got to talk about that tomorrow!

Ben and Matt both read Andy Shane Is NOT in Love by Jennifer Richard Jacobson. They laughed at the ending, and because both of them aren't into girls yet, could sympathize with Andy for being teased/accused of liking a girl in his class. The ending is a cute surprise. I like this for the ease of reading for early readers. There aren't too many words on a page, and there is a good amount of picture support for kids who are just starting chapter books.

Those are a few thoughts, we have several more to read that we got for Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I was thinking...what to say on a wonderful day like today. There are so many topics and things to cover, but I thought this was appropriate for today.

We give kids so much...we want them to have the best, we want them to be healthy, happy, and to know how much we love them. Today I look at my lists of items to get the kids -- of course books are included. At least 6 books for each of them.

My husband laughs (and kind of smirks) about how many books we have and when I am going to stop buying so many. I laugh and say...never!

Here's my take on that. I know my kids love reading, and if your kids do too, you probably have no worries buying them books too -- you know they won't gather dust on the shelves. But if your child is not as fond of reading, or struggles, you may wonder, "Why bother?"

I firmly believe the more texts are around them, the more apt they are to actually pick them up and try them. If there is little available, they obviously won't gravitate to books if there is a plethora of other things to do. My kids have haphazardly picked up books, just because they are there. There was no mission or mandate to read. They were just there!

Choose carefully. Think about things they talk about. Think about things they watch on TV. Consider their personality. Do they like fiction? Non-fiction?

If you are still unsure, blog here with some of your kids' traits...I can give suggestions.

I hope that you have a Blessed Christmas, and that there are some books under your tree!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jake Drake and Franny K. Stein!

My shopping is done! I actually got everything sent off finally yesterday...whew.

Now, as for our daily reading, we have been doing pretty good so far. I had to make up some read alouds with them, but they have been doing their independent reading every day. The TV thing is going well too - they actually played games for a few hours yesterday, made some great cards for their grandmother, and we went to the they appreciated the downtime, and there was no fighting!

I have been asking the boys to "try out" a few books for me...some newer (or not so new but I haven't read them) series for readers who are getting into chapter books.

Their favorites so far have been Franny K. Stein and Jake Drake...I like them too.

I like Franny K. Stein for the humor and the ease of reading. The chapters were nice and short, and there weren't too many words to a page. I liked the message in the book too, to be yourself, not what others want you to be. They kind of snuck it in through the plot - my kids got it.

Jake Drake was good too. Andrew Clements is a fabulous writer, so I liked the way he worked the piece. I like this especially for older readers who may be struggling readers, because the story is actually a fourth grader telling his experiences from when he was younger. So older kids don't feel like they are reading "baby" books or books that have a dumbed down plot. They can actually get into it, and have some meat to chew on. Jake Drake also deals with issues common to the classroom -- "Know it alls" and bullies. It shows how Jake solves his problem rather than tattling. I like that as a teacher and a mom. Matt and I had a good talk about both things -- and he was open about it.

Another thing I liked was that they are parts of a series...if your child likes them, can have new adventures with the next book. That again, builds confidence, fluency, and comprehension.

Have them pay attention to the characters' choices: Why do they do what they do? Is it a part of their personalities, or do other outside factors influence how they act?

I will be getting more of these books.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Wow, what a day!

Well, yesterday I had the grand experience of visiting my classes at Sampson Elementary School in Cypress, Texas. I was teaching there up until mid November when my family relocated to Austin. It has been quite an adjustment, and my time yesterday confirmed it.

As I entered the building, I had butterflies. I could hardly contain myself, I was soooo excited. The minute I rounded the hall to my old classroom door -- it was an explosion, inside and out. Kids rushed at me and all I could do was hug, hug, hug...

Finally, when the roar subsided a bit, I got them to sit down and talk to me. Of course, the first thing they wanted to tell me was the books they were reading!!!!! I listened intently, and as they shared with me, I could see their passion.

They had not been reading for me...sure, it may have started that way, but not anymore. They were hooked.

I shared with each one a few things I remembered about them as readers, and shot out a few titles they may want to pick up.

My gift to them was a personalized bookmark...the front had a cool heart with one of my favorite quotes of all time: "A text is merely ink on a page until a reader breathes life into them" --Louise Rosenblatt. On the back I had written each of them a note, with a picture of the two of us at the bottom. I had so much fun making each of them -- I cried as I wrote them, prayed that they'd use them, wondered if they'd cherish them.

So I challenged them to write me here and tell me about their reading. I told them to ask questions, and I would communicate...reading is best done in a community...

It has been said and I will say it again: I LOVE THOSE THIRD GRADERS AT SAMPSON ELEMENTARY! They have changed ME. I am a different person and educator, for having met each of them. I miss you guys!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Holidays Are Fast Approaching -- will we read?

My kids got out of school today for winter break. What am I going to do with them for two weeks? Well, I do like I do in the summer. I plan. I have to...otherwise it is a 6 hour day of Wii and TV.

I expect, as always, the first few days of our "routine" will be met with resistance. But, as always, after a few days, they discover mom's not bending...we might as well give in, and actually, it is kind of fun.

I block out times -- downtime (tv, etc.), reading, writing, games, and exercise. Within that block there are lots of choices. For example, writing can include coloring, stamping, painting, and stenciling. They can do crosswords and wordsearches.

Games can be anything from a board game to legos, to building with playdoh. Exercise may mean going to the park or taking a bike ride...or going to the gym with mom and playing in the kids club instead of watching the movie.

I like to cook with my kids too, while we have the time. I like them to learn the math part of measuring, and the reading directions part of recipes. I like having them learn to make something from a few ingredients, and enjoy it.

We have theme days too...for example, for Nick we might have an alphabet letter day, where we do things that start with that letter, eat foods with that letter, etc. Other days might focus on a person or persons...for example grandparents...we would write to them/about them, share stories about them, play games they have given us, and I will teach them to make a special food that I remember my grandma making. This can be really simple...and a great way to start traditions.

Now the TV/downtime is about an hour and a half in the morning, and then it is off until after dinner. Ouch...a full day! They can do it, trust me...but stick it out the first couple of days.

Reading time is 30 minutes their free choice, and then another block where we read together. I have to make a confession. Ugh...I don't read to my kids at bedtime. It just doesn't work for ME. I know a lot of you are so got the ritual going when your kids were babies. I just find that I am completely exhausted and falling asleep as I am reading it. I don't have the energy for discussion. But that's me...I am a morning person.

So we tend to read together at the dinner table. Scott and I usually eat later, so I sit down and read with the kids while they are eating. It does two things...gets them to sit and eat, and also sparks good conversation. They talk about the book, and often time tell me things about school and friends that come out through the topic of the book. I pick books on purpose -- themes of bullying, lying, see what comes out and how we can talk about it together. Funny how books will do that, huh...

So this week my goal is to read a Christmas themed book each night until Christmas. I have chosen a few from the large basket of Holiday books up in our media room. The kids have been looking at them all month. I will change out the books for a new theme in January.

Keep me they are:
Tonight: The Gift of the Magi
Friday: Too Many Tamales
Saturday: A Coat for Anna
Sunday: One Candle
Monday: Christmas Cookies: Bite Sized Lessons
Tuesday: The Xmas Extravaganza
Weds: Tree of Cranes
Thursday: The Polar Express
Friday: Great Joy

Let me know about some of your favorite holiday books and how you share them with your kids.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Ben book recommendation

Tonight Ben and I started reading Ricky Ricotta...Jurassic Jackrabbits from Jupiter by Dav Pilkey. Now, I knew Dav is a boy favorite already through his other series and books (Captain Underpants, for example), but I hadn't read this series. I liked it - it had a good plot, it was short, managable chapters, it was funny (they even ring the doorbell on the evil bunny's rocket lair), and it had places where I could ask some good comprehension questions.

It also had this little section where the kids could flip the pages and create motion/animation. I liked that for two reasons: one, they had to read and follow directions to figure out how to make the page flip right, and two, it was highly motivational to get to that part. (SO SMART that Dav Pilkey!)

There were a few times where I could ask some vocabulary/conceptual questions such as: What is cloning? (Ben knew) and times where I could ask him to predict. There were some places for cause and effect...if the character does x, what will follow? or Why did z happen? I could also ask about character motivations and traits...I could ask inferential questions (questions where the answers are not exactly stated in the text...they have to use "clues" to figure it out).

I like books that hit all types of comprehension.

More importantly, Ben liked it. He immediately asked, "Can we get the other ones in the series?"

We read it in two sittings, one where he did most of the reading, and then the second, where I did most of the reading. It is about 120 pages, but there are large illustrations and the text is short snippets on the pages, or concentrated on one of the two spreads.

I think these would be great to add to that list of books from yesterday's blog. Now there is a girl character who saves the day, so your tomboyish gals will like that. It is, however, more geared to those guys in your life.

I have a stack of about 10 more that I am reading -- some new series, and some that I haven't read in a while. I will try and share some insights on those as I finish them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading books that are too easy

A few days ago I mentioned the problem kids have in sticking with books that are too easy for them. I found this a common issue, especially in September with my Third grade classes. They had gotten comfortable with the easier levelled readers, and were not challenging themselves with longer and tougher books.

There are a few reasons they do this, and it completely makes sense. First off, those easier books are just that - easier. They have pictures, the kids are familiar with the series and characters, they are fast...all those things. Those things are great too, but when it becomes a crutch, we need to gently nudge them.

You wonder - this my child? Well, take a look in their backpack. If they have four or five thin paperbacks, and those paperbacks change on almost a daily basis...your child might be doing this. If they sit down for 15 minutes and have completed an entire book - it's probably time.

Here's the deal. You need their buy in. They are scared. They are comfortable. They don't necessarily want to get into those thicker books that don't have pictures, take a few days to read, and have harder words.

This is where it is important to have a sales background (I don't) haha - and a variety of books.

I do my research. I find out what they are interested in, then find books that are a tad tougher than they are used to (remember the JUST RIGHT rule!) and we get to talking about it. Then I FOLLOW UP. I meet with them daily, and ask them about THAT book. Often, that book is not the one they want to continue with at first. They want to pick out those easier books. It's the following up and asking them questions about that book that will keep them going. We set goals together. Be it read a chapter, few pages, or all the way to the end.

What you may find, is that in this transition, they may have a tough time finishing a book. They don't have the stamina, just like if I were to try to run a marathon tomorrow, even though I only run about 4 miles at a time right now. I need the follow up and goal setting of a coach.

That's how I found the Gym Shorts series. They are great -- they are shorter chapter books that have a sport theme. That's how I hooked my students Allyson and Olivia -- they are swimmers, and there is one centered around a girl on the swim team. PERFECT FIT. Once they tried it, they forgot that it took them a few days. It was interesting, actually. Olivia loved to pick up books that were too hard, and then she'd never finish. Allyson, on the other hand, was switching books too quickly because she was sticking with those books that were too easy.

Anyhow, you may be familiar with some of these series, but I find that these are good books to transition from the easy readers into chapter books (I have to warn you, I am picky. I don't like to pick just the rave - I like books that have GOOD WRITING) So, I will include some of the standbys, but know that I may offer some that you aren't so familar with.

Junie B. Jones
Magic Tree House
Judy Moody
Max and Mallory
Pirate School
Gym Shorts
A to Z Mysteries
Just Grace
Rainbow Magic
Matt Christopher's Sports Series (careful, there are several levels)
The Pain and the Great One series (Judy Blume)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series

Something you might want to look into is the author of the series your child was reading before. I know that if they love Cynthia Rylant's Henry and Mudge, she has other books that are harder. If they fall in love with an author, you are golden. You can keep them reading for years.

These are series that will transition early readers to chapter books...I will tell you about some other series to help transition these readers to harder chapter books in coming days.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's just like riding a bike

It is. Think about it. When you pedal, it takes effort - bottom line, it's not mindless (like some other common activity our kids love to do). Kids need to know that. You can't pick up a book and hope it just goes in. You have to think.

The terrain is what I want them to understand. I ask kids to explain how it feels to ride a bike up a hill. Usually, they tell me their legs hurt, they run out of breath, and they have to work very hard. I agree, and explain that when they read books that are too difficult for them, their brains are experiencing that same thing. Now, we can all ride our bikes up hills, but not for long. It isn't enjoyable (unless you are me) and you wish for some flatter road.

Next I talk about going downhill. They know that they don't have to pedal much, they can coast. The wind is whipping through their hair...yet, it gets boring ONLY going downhill. That's books that are too easy. I tell them that sometimes we need some downhill - a break - but we aren't going to grow as bike riders, nor are we going to see much because we are flying through.

Finally, the flat road (that's easy to talk about when you live in Houston - haha). That's just right books. You are working, but you can go on a long time. You are breathing, but it isn't are getting good exercise.

I actually took my boys out on their bikes the other day here at our new house in Austin. It was funny to have their response to the new "hills." I know this analogy would now have new meaning for them.

Again, this idea of selecting a just right book is foundational to any work that needs to be done. Any struggles from here can be dealt with -- if they are still picking books that are too easy or too hard, we can't even think to find out the root of any other problems until this one is out of the way.

So now what? Oh, there's soooo much more.

Let me hear about what your kids are saying about just right books or anything else reading related!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Does the shoe fit?

Today I want to give you another analogy. Why? Because I think it is absolutely crucial that your child understand and be able to select books that fit them. I want them to know as soon as they start to read...I don't think we need to wait until they are in school.

I have seen so many children give up on reading unnecessarily. They just don't have the internal understanding of what it means to understand reading and to enjoy books -- simply because they don't know how to pick a book.

Yesterday, I talked about weights. Let's talk shoes. Now for some of you, this is a much more relatable scenario. You love shoes. You have all kinds, for different purposes...just like books.

First, talk about size with your kids. In class, I pull out a bag that has a number of shoes from my family members. I usually start with my husband's shoe. I ask them if it would be ok for me to wear these...they laugh, of course, explaining to me that it is TOO big for me. That's where I relate it to books. Why would I wear a pair of shoes that I would fall out of? That's only going to make me frustrated, and uncomfortable.

The next pair is Nick's tennis shoe (he's one and a half). Their first reaction is "oh, so cute" and then they tell me no way -- it is too small. I tell them that it is like those easy books we know and love - they are very cute, and we can easily get through them, but we have outgrown them.

I pull out a sandle of that would be worn on a dressy occasion (not that I have that many occasions). They immediately say it's good for me, because it is my size. I agree, but I also point out that I would not choose this shoe say, if I were going to the grocery store or the gym. I need to consider the purpose and type of book as well.

So it goes. I have my kids in class go home and explain the analogy to their parents. It's funny, because at conference time parents mention how their closets were invaded so they could really reinact the whole analogy.

I love it. Try it. If the shoe/book fits, it will feel comfortable - you could walk for a good amount of time.

Tomorrow is my all time favorite analogy for just right books...hint...I rode the Livestrong 90 mile ride this year, and it made it to the top ten list of my life!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reading and Weightlifting

Those of you who know me know that I love to work out. If there is one thing that keeps me sane, it may be my daily sweat session.

When I talk to my kids about reading "just right" books, I tell them my weightlifting analogy.

I remind them that their brains are muscles...people who use their muscles grow them, or, on the flip side, if that muscle isn't used...they get flabby.

I tell them that picking a just right book starts with light weights. You pick up what you can handle. If you pick up something too heavy, you will get hurt, and if it is too light, your muscles won't get bigger either.

After picking up the lighter weights for a while, your muscles get used to need a challenge. You pick up a little heavier weight.

You may pick a book with harder words, or more words, or a different genre (type). Any of those things will make your muscle stronger. I tell them to pick up a weight that is only a little bit heavier...I wouldn't go from a 10 lb. barbell straight to a 50...I would get a 15.

I actually take hand weights in to demonstrate...they think it is really fun and get into it.

Take the analogy one step further once they hear it. As I read with kids, I will ask them how it feels. Does it feel too heavy? Too light?

Tonight my family and I were in Barnes and Noble (not a surprise that I had three books in hand within the first 2 minutes in the store). I picked up a series about Freddy the Hampster for Ben -- it was something new, but humorous, and he needs to be challenged to try new genres. Anyhow, I had him read a page to me and he did fine, yet I didn't think his fluency was reflecting an ease with the book level. I asked him how he felt. He said he really wanted to read it...but when I asked if he would rather read it alone or have me read it to him, he hesitated. I asked him if it was a bit too much weight. He agreed, but looked bummed out. I immediately explained that he would definitely be able to read this book, just not right now...he needed to build up that reading muscle with those great Stink and A to Z books he was reading. He perked up immediately, and asked if I would remember it for later.

You can try this at home. Talk to them about weightlifting, or even running a marathon. No one goes from not running or running a mile to running 26.2 overnight (don't let the biggest loser be a gauge). They need to build up to it, or they will have to quit because they haven't built up to it.

You may find that this is why your child stops in the middle of books...they might not be just right.

Now, if the working out/physical analogy isn't working for ya, I have another one tomorrow...

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Just Right" Books

What I am going to talk about today may seem like a no-brainer, yet it is one of the most common reasons why kids struggle with reading.

Do you remember Goldilocks? Yes, she tried out beds that were too hard and too soft. Not a comfortable fit! She kept trying. Finally, she found the one that was "just right" and fell fast asleep.

Books are the same way. Kids love to pick up the latest craze (i.e. Harry Potter), but, in MANY cases, these books are way too hard for them. They may stumble through every other word, or worse, they can read every word, but have no idea what is happening in the story. The latter is tricky for us as listeners because it sounds like they get it, but if you ask them what is going on, they will either tell you the movie version, look at you blankly, or give you a vague description of, " well this guy is doing this stuff and the girl..." Let me tell you another secret - if kids are talking about their books and they can't remember to call the characters by name, RED FLAG! Of course, as your child is just starting on their reading journey, you may need to teach them to talk about their characters by calling them their names.

The problems with books that are too hard are obvious. They won't understand, and eventually, they will hate/give up on reading because it is not fun -- it's too hard.

On the flip side, your child may be picking up/sticking with books that are no longer challenging for them. They will frequently be finishing books in a short period of time and needing another one. This commonly happens between second and third grade. Second graders may be reading shorter books (Henry and Mudge, Magic Tree House) and able to finish them quickly, most of the time in one sitting. We will talk about that issue another day - remind me if I forget.

The problem here is that they are not growing. They need the challenge to get better, just like a weightlifter has to gradually continue to add weight to the barbell to help his muscles grow when he gets accustomed to a set weight.

Back to just right books. Kids need to develop an INTERNAL understanding/voice that knows what a just right book is for them. They need to get that "feeling" that they are reading exactly what their level is. Many times they will ask the librarian or their teacher to tell them what "level" they are reading -- based on tests that teachers have done to find their reading level. Now hold on - knowing their levels through assessment is very important. I think as a teacher I always needed to sit and listen to them read first thing in the year to find out where they are reading independently, what level I need to use with them to instruct (they are 85% there), and also where they top out and get frustrational (decoding and comprehension totally break down). But that is a good gauge for me to know a number...say AR level, second grade, etc.

Every year, my goal is to help students become independent and have a voice in their learning. They need to understand what they are doing as good readers and writers. So the best thing is to show them what good readers do -- they read books that are just right for them, and they go about selecting those books in several ways. (one of which is not to go to a bookstore and ask the salesclerk if they have any novels on a college sophomore level, for example).

So let's think -- how do we, as good readers, select books? When we do, how do we know if those books are too hard or too easy for us?

ask other readers for recommendations
read a small portion to see if we are interested
read the book jacket
read authors we already have read
we read advertisements or book reviews

I will talk about each one of those along the way.

OK, so we selected a book. There are a few ways to test our understanding. I will quickly give you one common way we do it with kids...

The Five Finger Rule: read a page...if you come to 5 or more words you don't know/can't say/don't understand on that one aren't ready yet. I stress the "not ready yet." THEY WILL BE!!!! Encourage them to work out their muscle where it is able to work right will grow and they will be able to pick up these harder books soon. One caveat...they need to be HONEST and stop to recognize they are missing more than five words. Struggling readers have great survival skills...they can mumble and bluff their way through words, convincing themselves they understand. They will substitute words they know (which is another type of strategy when used appropriately with context works -- another day) and pretend they get it. This is where it gets tricky. They do, in their hearts, know they aren't getting it, but they want to in the worst way. We need to tell them over and over it is ok they aren't there yet. Steer them to other books with the same genre (subject/style), only find one on an easier level.

There are so many series now that are made at different levels...many of which are "chapter books" -- children's authors have responded for the need for these early readers which transition kids from easy decoding to short, managable chapters with vocabulary they can handle.

So tonight, do the 5 finger test with your child. Or better yet, read to them and show them as an adult (use a magazine, newspaper, or hopefully you are in the middle of a novel) how you can do the same test for yourself!

Tomorrow...the weight test. (No, this isn't the Biggest Loser, don't worry)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Did homework go smoother?

Well, I am happy to say that last night, we DID get all our reading done. I stood my ground and the boys are starting to see a routine. Sam is reading his Cam Jansen mystery book -- he's hooked on the series. Ben has an obsession with space right now, so he was teaching me all he had read about the formation of stars and black holes (which I still have only a rudimentary understanding), and Matthew is reading a book called How to Steal a Dog.

Now each of them teach me something about how to get kids reading, and also some obstacles too. Let me start with Sam. Sam is a reader who gets excited about series -- once he has read one, he feels more confident when he reads another, because 1, he has successfully completed one before, and 2, he knows what the text structure is like, so he knows how to predict what is going to happen (I will talk about knowing text structure and genre = understanding what we read another day). If I try to tell Sam about another great book, he will push it aside until he feels he has read enough in the current series. I don't bug him about it. Hey, he's reading! I do, however, ask him how the current book is the same and different from the prior one. That keeps him thinking -- deeper.

Ben -- well, the passion and interest is the key for him. He is tackling concepts and words far above his first grade level simply because he WANTS to understand. Now, as a mom of boys, I have to say that sometimes it is hard to find what they are passionate about. Boys like humor, bathroom talk, and blood and guts...sometimes things that we think are "inappropriate" in the classroom. I think, however, if that's what it takes, let them read it and get the idea that reading is enjoyable! My boys all started with Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and have read several Captain Underpants books too. But eventually, they realized that reading other types of books was just as pleasurable, for different reasons. Ben loves to learn about space. So I am letting him read tons of nonfiction about it, yet suggesting other books along the way that relate. We are currently reading a book about the Universe (fiction) written by Lucy and Steven Hawking. He loves it because he can follow the story with all his space knowledge (I am learning along the way) and I am loving it because growing up, the Hawking family lived next door to me when he was working at Caltech in Pasadena, California (that's another cool story for another day).

Ok, now Matt. Matt has always been a voracious reader, yet he tends to either be reading 4 books at once, or he is reading so quickly that he misses nuances in the books. He is reading How to Steal a Dog -- for the third time. He tells me this time he is really making discoveries and getting things he missed the first (and second) time. My work with him is not to hound, but to encourage. I check in with him about 10 minutes into his 25 per day...I will just ask him to read where he's at, and then to give me a quick update what he just read. I can't read all the books entirely that he is reading (although if you have the time to, that's fabulous) so I don't know all about it. But if he is understanding and keeping up with the page or two that he is reading with me, then I can trust he is comprehending. If I notice he is missing ideas just in the small one or two pages with me...RED FLAG. Either he is reading too fast, he's not focusing, or this isn't a just right book for him. Each day, before he takes out his book, I tell him that I can't wait to find out what is happening with his characters in How to Steal a Dog. This sends a message that I am expecting him to continue in that book until he finishes, and that I am interested, so there is motivation for him also.

OH MAN...tomorrow...Just Right Books...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Making time to read when you don't seem to have it, and the kids would rather do other things

I had a little "Oops" moment this morning when I was helping pack my son Ben's backpack for school. I was making sure he had his lunch, his library books (it's library day or his class), when it dawned on me that he hadn't read his 15 minutes last night. My mind raced through a million excuses...the dishwasher repairman was here late, my husband and I attended his office party last night, etc...etc...

But there I was, bummed at myself for letting that important time slip through the cracks.

There are always things that take up our time -- especially during the holidays -- but we need to be diligent and communicate both verbally and through our actions that reading time is sacred...and not to be overlooked.

I'm family and I just moved to Austin three weeks ago, and our schedules, schools, surroundings -- everything is different. Which means the routines we had before may not work for us now. Three weeks ago, I was teaching, so the boys would immediately come to my classroom and do homework/read until I was ready to go. They didn't have neighbor boys around, the one year old was still in preschool, so that was uninterrupted time. They finished up so that as soon as we arrived home, they knew they had free time.

Now we come home, and I try to get everyone a snack and focused, but sometimes, I admit, it is chaotic. That's hardly my favorite time to have them read...

SO, what do I do? How can I "steal" moments in the day to read?

I have thought of a couple ideas, and maybe you can use one/share one of your own!
  • We always have books in the car, so instead of turning on the VCR, I have them read as we are going to practice, running errands, etc.
  • Another strategy is actually one that limits something that interferes: TV. I have TV tickets. They can earn them by getting their work done, by getting along, by focusing...and lose them as a consequence of not. Tickets are worth 15 minutes of TV time. They can pool them for a longer show, or just decide which show they are going to watch on their own tickets. It takes me out of the "bad guy" mode and makes it very objective. Homework done, tickets = TV/video games. If they don't and don't have tickets, oh well.
  • Something else has more to do with me, than them. I need to put my errands, etc. on the back burner until they are completely done with homework. I also need to be firm in saying no to playdates, even if they are at the door...we will come out when we're done.
  • I am also taking this time to read with Nick so the one year old isn't taking this opportunity to color on their papers, rip their books, or just basically distract.
  • Put on a particular music. I keep it low, upbeat, and not necessarily Radio Disney. It's just something that signals it is work time, and it is another one of those "mind pegs" that internally trigger their minds to focus on the work since that is what they do to that music every day.
  • Don't answer the phone. They will call back.
  • Pull out books early. Maybe do some reading to them while they are eating their snack.
  • Work in one area. Don't spread out to too many rooms so you are running to try and get to different children.
  • Type up a special reading chart or list and put it in a predominent area. Let them choose to write in pens, glitter glue, or put stickers...make it appealing to them.

Those are a few things I am going to try. Some may work, and if not, I will revise my strategies to see what fits. And I promise Mrs. Watson, Ben won't miss out on reading tonight.

Monday, December 7, 2009

More on Mo Willems

I was reading with my one and a half year old, Nicholas, when it dawned on me that I had forgotten something extremely important in the last entry.

I will let you in on a secret...the best way to know what and how to teach your child to attention to what YOU do when you read. That's what good readers do, and that's what your child needs to learn. Here's the might need to read, and you must be thinking about your reading process at the same time you are remembering what you read.

I say this because that's what happened with Nick. There we were, reading along, and I changed my voice BECAUSE...there was a punctuation mark! I forgot to have you point out to your child that those marks (?.!,...) are all there for a reason! They tell us how to make our voices sound, and when to stop and take a breath.

Gerald and Piggie are awesome for this, because they have such expression and humor, and you can't help but inflect your voice and pause for drama. Your child might automatically do it. PRAISE them for it! Tell them they just did what good readers do - they watch those punctuation marks to know how to make their voices sound.

Here's a head's up...when they are ready, or if they are already ready, for more challenging books, if they run their voices through the periods/punctuation marks, remind them what they did with Gerald and Piggie. Gerald and Piggie become sort of a "mind peg" where they can trigger their memory and transfer that learning. Brain research shows that they will. If they did it before with ease and enjoyment, they will be able to do it again later with tougher material.

Now, as I said earlier, you will need to read. I like to read through books before I read them to the kids to get myself warmed up. I pay attention to things I am thinking and doing along the way so that I can talk to them about those things as I read with them later. TRY IT! :)

Hope you have a fabulous Monday...and, by the way, a new Gerald and Piggie book is coming out in January!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

It's just the beginning of a grand adventure

Welcome! I am so glad that you have decided to find out how we can work together to create or deepen your child's love for reading.

Let's begin with fluency (reading smoothly with expression). Whether your child is young and just beginning to work on decoding or has been struggling with this area, I have a few suggestions. The first thing is to break down the walls of fear -- this only creates a barrier to enjoyment, and they will resist.

I use humor. Make them them that books are FUN.

Mo Willems' books are the epitome of fun and laughter. I begin by reading the Gerald and Piggie books aloud to will find that it is contagious and they will begin reading them with you.

A few tips as you are reading them that you can point out:

  • The speech bubbles are color coded to match the character (it helps when you are doing "voices" for the characters)
  • Watch the characters body language for clues to how they are feeling (thus, their voices will reflect it)
  • Facial expressions will also signal how to express the language.
  • Font will change size, shape, and color -- voices will get louder, softer
  • He repeats phrases -- help your child recognize the repeated will help with sight vocabulary
  • Read the blurb on the back of the book -- it prepares you for what the adventure will be

As you point this out, you will notice it happens in all the Gerald and Piggie books...your child will have a confidence knowing the patterns are predictable, although the words and plots change.

Note: With older children, I have them read and prepare to read with a younger child. They will practice and get good with reading fluently, and then "teach" the younger child what you pointed out to them.

These books may seem extremely simple, but fluency isn't about simply saying the words. They need to understand that when they are reading words, they are expressing character's words...that's the point here.

We will take a look at another series next time...any questions or feedback? I look forward to establishing some great reading bonds soon!