Saturday, June 25, 2011

Help for Word Callers: Changing Visual Images

Have you ever tried to open a can with a can opener, only to find that the cutting mechanism hasn't engaged? You can turn and turn the crank--but that can will never open. The opener is just sliding along the surface.

In a way, this is what reading is like for kids who don't attach meaning to the words in the text. They read and read, skimming along the surface. Yet they never dig into the text and open up the meaning.

Our job as teachers, then, is to help those little can openers engage! When I work with students who show this tendency, I try to think about how I can help the students to move below the surface of the text to open up the meaning.

Previously, I wrote about how teachers can use drawings to help readers make meaning from text, as well as how you can use manipulatives. Today's strategy is quite simple, and yet is very effective with students.

I first saw this in my son's kindergarten class. I'm sure that it has a proper name, and is probably written up in a book somewhere. If you know, please leave a comment.

The premise is simple: Take a sentence from the text that has visual imagery, but is somewhat ambiguous. Before showing students the text, share this sentence with them, and have students draw a picture to show the visual image that they create.

Here's how it worked with students. I was reading "Wings in the Water" with them, from the 2/3 Toolkit Texts book. I chose these sentences to share:

"A huge, flat creature leaps out of the sea. It skims over the water and flips backward with a splash."

The two boys who read the sentences started talking about it right away. What could it be? A penguin? They discarded this idea. One of them said, "I think I know what it is, but I don't know its name. Maybe it's a shark." The other pointed out that a shark really isn't flat. As they talked about these sentences, they were using all of the habits of successful reader--going back to the text (just the two sentences), looking at the meanings of words, trying to wring every single detail from the clues.

After a few moments, I gave them the text, which is about manta rays. "Oh! So that's what they're called," one of the boys said. I noticed the other one going back to his picture and drawing a manta ray. Skilled readers experience that visual flicker of a changing mental image all the time. For less skilled readers, it's a kind of new feeling. We paused a bit and talked about how their ideas of the text had changed. What was it about? Now that they were looking at pictures of the topic, how did they match up with the two sentences they had read?

100+ aquarium pictures, no rays. Oh well!

Students who are word callers often don't dig around in sentences. With this activity, they have to look at each word and connect them to try to build some meaning. When they have built an idea, they may learn from looking at the text that they need to change their ideas--and this is okay. This is what skilled readers do all the time.

What I like most about this strategy is the simplicity of it. It doesn't require much preparation--just finding suitable sentences from the text, and coaching students through the process of drawing what they visualize. And yet the rewards can be worthwhile, getting students to engage with text and make new connections.

While it won't work for every text, it certainly is another good tool for helping students. One more thing to help open up those cans of meaning!

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