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.

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