Friday, July 24, 2009

Layering inferences

I love surprise stories. I love it when an author strings me along to think that things are going to unfold in one way, only to have them unfold completely differently. For very young kids, Kathy Mallat’s Trouble on the Tracks is a good example of this kind of book. As an older reader, I loved The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, because the first person narrator is hiding something the entire time.

But I need to be cautious in using too many surprise stories with my students, because these kinds of stories are often the exception instead of the rule. For every book that has a blinding surprise at the end, there are at least five others that unfold along more predictable lines. It’s far more likely that a reader will encounter a story that leads to a deepening and refining of predictions.

I wrote “The Magic School” story to try this out with students. (It showed up as a presentation at Slideshare, but it's really a Word document, formatted to copy double-sided) I wanted a story in which small clues lead to larger clues, a story that would be supportive to students as they make inferences. I embedded the questions to help readers pause and think at certain spots. It's bare of illustration because I wanted to give readers more of an experience in visualizing from scratch. It's set in a familiar location, with familiar items, so they should be able to create the pictures in their heads.

When I used it with a small group of students, “The Magic School” worked wonderfully. The students liked being able to write on the books, and the questions served their purpose. It was interesting to see which students could use the clues from the beginning of the story to help them figure out the events—for example, making the connection that the librarian had been the largest flower in the enchanted library. Some of the students picked up on it intuitively, while others needed coaching to recognize that, usually, the details in a story are there for a reason.

If you want to find out how your kids are making sense of text, try changing a few of the pronoun references in the story to see if kids pick up on it. This can work with any text and is a quick way to find out which of your students are not reading deeply. If they notice the pronoun mismatches, they have a picture in their minds which they are carrying forward through the text. If they breeze right through the mismatch, then you know you need to work with this child to read more deeply. (Thanks to Kameron, who noticed my pronoun mistake in the original story and brought it to the reading group's attention!)

The flower at the top is jewelweed, blooming abundantly now around wet areas. It has a surprise ending--the seed pods will pop when you touch them, leading to its other name, touch-me-not.

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