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Developing Successful Readers

The most important goal of a reading program should be to cultivate the love of reading and develop successful readers. But here is a key point: by successful readers I don’t mean children who are able to decode print. That is indeed a necessary skill. However, successful readers do so much more than that. They are actually able to comprehend what they read and furthermore, talk about it.

In our class, we do the usual activities to develop letter/sound connections, book handling skills, and decoding strategies. At the same time, we spend a lot of time simply talking about books with the Characterschildren. Weather as a whole class, in small groups, or partnerships, we show the children how to have ideas and conversations about books. Naturally, these are skills and behaviours that need to be modelled and practiced. A read aloud offers a lot of opportunities for this. It can be a simple teacher think aloud such as “I wonder if…”, or a turn and talk with your neighbour about how the main character must feel about this event, or a more specific conversation about story structure elements such as setting. All of these experiences help ensure comprehension and strengthen the children’s own talks about books. .

Some of the open-ended questions we use are:

  1. Where and when does the story take place? How do you know?
  2. What problem or situation does the author use to get the story started?
  3. What are the main events of the story? Could you change their order or leave any of them out? Why or why not?
  4. How did the story end?
  5. Think of a different ending to the story.
  6. Did the story end the way you expected it to? What clues did the author offer to prepare you to expect this ending?
  7. Who is the main character of the story? What kind of person is the character? What did he do or say to show you what he was like?
  8. What did ______ try to do about _______? What happened when _____ did _____? Why did _____ do ______?
  9. What did _______ want?
  10. How did _______ feel in the end?
  11. What was your favourite part of the story? Why?
  12. Does this story remind you of anything that has happened to you or someone you know?
  13. Is this story like any other story you have read or watched?
  14. Think about the characters in the story. Are any of them the same type of characters that you have met in other stories?

Obviously, we don’t ask all these questions at once. In the beginning we simply familiarise the children with the elements of story structure: characters, setting, problem, solution. We’ve made symbols for these four ideas for the more visual learners. Later on in the year when the children work in partnerships to retell, discuss, and compare stories, they use smaller versions of the symbols as prompt cues for their discussions.

Characters
In an effort to accommodate all learning styles, at times we also ask them to draw these four elements of story structure. They draw on four index cards. Then they place the index cards in a four envelope accordion (we make this),   and use labels (we make these too) to specify what each card/picture represents. They really like this activity and it gets them in the habit of thinking about story structure. 

As teachers of early readers we sometimes become too print-focused. It is important that we keep in mind all the elements which make good readers successful. We need to give our students opportunities to think about books on their own and talk about them with each other. This will eventually help them become stronger independent readers who are able to have successful and satisfying reading experiences.

Please share with us ideas and activities of your own that pertain to developing successful readers.

Different counties, different education

Hi everyone,
Here I am on my last week of vacation cherishing every bit of sun, sea, and good food.  I am in a small village in my native country of Greece.  Every time I come home I inevitably compare my experiences as a teacher in Athens, Greece with those in New York City.  In both places I taught in private schools that are rather well-known in their perspective cities.  There are a few things that always come to mind:

  • In Greece teachers are still highly respected as opposed to the States, at least in my opinion.  Unfortunately, however, in both places they are underpaid for their work.
  • In Greece the curriculum and the textbooks are set by the Ministry of Education for each grade for the whole country.  Although instruction varies depending on teaching style it is still rather traditional and restricted.  In the US there are national and state standards and curriculum outlines but I think there is more room for variation and individuality.  In New York City where I teach, this flexibility is quite evident in the private schools.
  • Greek parents place immense importance on education.  Not to say that Americans don’t value education.  However, Greeks truly believe that education is the means to advancement.  Therefore they push and make many sacrifices to try to put their children through school and college.  Although public education is free, Greek parents will spend significant amounts of money on tutoring institutions (entry into the Greek university is insanely difficult) and foreign language schools.
  • Learning a foreign language fluently is considered a necessity in Greece.  In the States learning a second language fluently is usually family heritage or a privilege.  In June 2007 $8.5 million in grants was awarded by the US government for “critical foreign language instruction” to boost national security and commerce.  It supports the instruction of languages such as Arabic, Chinese, and Farsi.

Having been raised bilingual, yet working on my fifth language at the moment, I find this last difference a very interesting point.  I see the early acquisition of a second language as a true gift as it not only gives you fluency but also expands your brain.  Children who are raised bilingual gain the ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. It also broadens your understanding of the world as language is intertwined with culture.  Of course there is always the practical aspect of it as well, communication. 
As a people Greeks take immense pride in their language and culture and teach their children both no matter where they are in the world.  At the same time, Greek is almost exclusively spoken in Greece or by ex-patriots, so in their native land they see the need for foreign language instruction.  As of second grade, children learn another language.  Aside from the hours they get in school they usually also go to a language school for extra hours or eventually a third language.  In the Greek private school where I worked in Athens, I taught English in 40 minute periods each day to Pre-K and K.  In addition they offered English in the after-school program.  It was phenomenal how fast these kids got comfortable with the language.  Some schools also have foreign language summer camps.  Due to the fact that these prorgams add a great deal to the status and competitiveness of a school, ususally much attention is given to teacher selection and curriculum.
On the contrary, I beleive that in the US foreign language often starts after fifth grade.   In the school I teach at now in New York City, foreign language doesn’t begin until seventh grade.  The truth of the matter is that in our school we do offer a number of specials so there is no room in our schedule as it is.  Something would have to be eliminated in order to include a foreign language.  Also, some argue that unless you expose the children to a foreign language at least twice a week you’re not achieving anything.  I don’t know if I would agree with that. 
In a country like the US and a city like New York where there are people from literally all over the world, any exposure at this early age could make a difference.  Comfort levels and inclusion are based on understanding of others.  Just within our classroom we have students of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds.  Given the limited amount of time Naomi and I have the children in our classroom we try to interject activities that touch upon various languages, such as:

  • Songs: It might be songs in other languages that we know, or songs our families teach us.  We also do a hello/goodbye song with greetings in various languages.  Check out a similar song "Hola" and other activities on the Scholastic website.
  • Counting:  While the children get on line we count in a different language.
  • Literature: We read familiar stories, such as ‘Swimmy’, or books with very strong picture clues in a different language.  We often invite parents or school workers who speak another language to do this as guest readers.  Usually it is part of our study of family and school community.
  • Phrases: Children who speak another language at home teach the class simple phrases such as ‘thank you’ or ‘how are you?’
  • Cooking:  We cook food of our cultural background and that of our families.  Often this is part of our study of holidays or family traditions and heritage.
  • Pen-pals: We have not actually done this.  A fellow teacher in our school who is Japanese had set up a pen-pal class in Japan.  The children wrote notes to each other and sent pictures.  She then translated the letters.  Each class also made a video showing a school day.  Although this was a lot of work for Keiko, the teacher, her students (and parents) absolutely loved it!

We would love to know if you have any other activities that we can incorporate.  Also, if you ever taught in another country please share the experience with us. 

 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Naomi & Alexandra's Kindergarten Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.