Sunday, May 15, 2011

Help for Word Callers: Using Manipulatives

For me, some of the hardest readers to reach are those that seem to decode accurately and quickly, but have trouble with retelling or answering questions. Sometimes these readers are called "word callers". They have often done just fine with reading in the primary grades, when their ability to decode quickly and accurately puts them at the top of their class.

In fourth grade, however, things start to change. As text becomes more complex and readers need to make more inferences, these students start to feel a little lost. They might look around the room and see the other students quickly writing summaries, while they struggle to think of what to include. They might listen to a conversation about the theme of a story, but not understand how stories can show different themes. It's easy for these readers to become frustrated--reading used to be so easy, but now it's so hard.

As I wrote about in January, these readers may not be building elaborate mental models. A mental model is a reader's impression of a text and understanding of the main ideas. Dr. Gary Woolley's article, "Developing Reading Comprehension: Combining Visual and Verbal Processes" is an excellent introduction to helping students to build mental models.

One of the ideas mentioned in the article is the use of manipulatives for reading. While much of the research about this focuses on manipulatives for early readers, I've found this strategy to be useful in the intermediate classroom as well. When readers have to move around pictures and objects, they have to make more meaningful connections between ideas in the text. It's not enough to just read a sentence and blunder on to the next--the reader needs to stop, find the relevant pictures, and show how they carry out the actions in the text.

Why is this strategy not used more often? I think it's a question of materials. Materials for retelling and acting out text with manipulatives are simply not widely available, especially at the intermediate level. (In some of the original research, they referred to using Playmobil toys, with texts written especially to fit the toys that they had. Playmobil did make some fairy tale sets, but they're becoming hard to find.)

I've tried to create some items for my classroom, using simple illustrations for the manipulatives. Once students are familiar with the process, they are eager to create their own retelling figures. This is a great activity, because it harnesses both drawing and manipulative use to enhance comprehension. While I started using this activity to help the word callers, I found that all of the readers in my room enjoy this.

If you haven't tried manipulatives with your readers, the end of the year is the perfect time to try it out. Kids find this strategy inherently motivating, while you can do some "kid-watching" to see how all of your readers--and especially those who show word-calling tendencies--react to this kind of activity. Here is a very simple text with pictures.

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