Stories, Actually…. by Bridget Hodder
For several years, I taught reading through the Resource Room of a public elementary school, where we often had to pull out inclusion kids from vibrant mainstream classrooms during Language Arts or “free reading” periods. We taught these students the basics of reading from a regimented, workbook-based program required by our curriculum.
And yet, teaching the mechanics of reading to students who aren’t already eager for stories is like making them dig in the dirt five days a week, for years, in search of a glittering treasure that isn’t actually there.
Think of it: as educators and parents, we wouldn’t tell those treasure-seeking kids who dug faithfully for so long under our guidance, “Bad news: there aren’t any jewels or gold doubloons under all that dirt. But the good news is, now you’re qualified for a job that requires lots of mindless digging! Yay! Go out and get one!”
We’d be lucky if they didn’t bonk us on the heads with their shovels.
But that’s exactly what we’re saying when we make kids decode words and sentences without first enticing them into the fellowship of those who love, crave, and understand stories. Funny or romantic, thrilling or sad……tales that sweep them up into worlds where they truly want to belong. That longing, and that belonging, will make their learning process feel more like an initiation into glamorous mysteries, and less like a thankless chore.
I know this from my own experience. The material that students read should be experienced as a reward for the trouble it takes them to do it. And yet, the folks who create some reading programs seem to work so hard to get the “levels” right, they forget to make any of the stuff in their workbooks actually worth anyone’s time and effort.
For example, take a look at these lines from a “story” in a workbook we used in our Resource Room:
Sid and Meg met Ben at the bus. Meg wanted to go to the shop, but Ben and Sid did not wish to go. Meg got them to go.
Now wake up, and tell me what happened in that text! (The answer is: “Nothing”.)
By contrast, here’s part of a story I wrote at the identical reading level, to alternate within the same program:
Tad dug in the mud with a mug. Then he put the mud in a bag.
“Tad, are you mad?” said his pal, Ben. ‘What is this bag of mud?’
“It is The Big Dig,” said Tad.
“Go get a bath,” said Ben.
My students loved this one. It sparked discussion about “The Big Dig”, a huge road project going on in Boston at the time. We’d try reading the story in different ways: sometimes Ben would sound concerned; sometimes snarky. We’d even raise the question of whether or not Ben’s “mad/crazy” joke was hurtful, and whether a real friend would put down his pal’s pastime, however odd it might be. Day after day, the students looked forward to my next silly little tale.
At a higher reading level, kids would have to master workbook pieces like this one, “The Best Host” (excerpt):
Sid was just a child, but he was the best host. He was kind to the old man in the den. The old man sat and Sid got him chips and dip and a Tab.
If that didn’t send my students into a coma, they could then try one of my stories at the same level (excerpt):
The Beast is big, and its call is a shrill yelp. It licks grubs. It has long tusks. It likes to sit in the gunk and the scum. It is a pest who eats dogs and cats!
Even though the second story is harder, guess which one they mastered first?
Thank goodness, our lesson plans required re-telling and discussion of existing program material. So the kids and I made up “back story” about hapless three-letter characters like “Sid” and “Meg”, stuck in their dull little workbook worlds. We wondered why “Sid” in the piece above, who “was just a child”, ended up hosting an old man on his own in the first place. Was the man an unfortunate elderly soul who’d fallen down outside Sid’s house? Should Sid have asked his parents before he brought the man inside? (And what the heck is “Tab”, anyway…or a “den”?)
While we chatted, students learned many important things, including:
*We need more words to get better stories.
*Fascinating tales are everywhere (particularly if you’re willing to make them up).
*Tab was a disgusting, old-timey, cola drink (sorry, Tab fans).
Put the “interesting workbook” approach together with plenty of exciting, cliff-hanger read-alouds, and we can do more effective work as educators of kids with reading challenges. We can teach students to become readers, rather than simply teach them to read.
So here’s my plea: let’s make Language Arts workbooks focus on brief real stories, not puzzling out-of-context novel excerpts, or nonsensical canned “reading material”.
I’m not trying to put down the program we used in our schools. In fact, it was a wonderful tool that helped every child who needed us– and I highly recommend it. I’m just pointing out that we don’t become high achievers solely by deciphering words and performing superficial textual analysis. I believe reading is crucial in life primarily due to the way it allows us to experience lots and lots of different content.
Stories, actually. And the facts or fictions they offer.
That’s how young people learn to tell themselves tales of their own. Tales in which they’re president, or starting a company that brings clean water to thirsty people, or fighting off zombies in the Apocalypse. (Because you never know.)
Kids need to see what they can be, before they can become.
They need to see where they’re going, before they can get there. Which usually requires maps.
And stories are maps to everywhere.
Bridget Hodder is the author of THE RAT PRINCE, a Middle Grade reimagining of the Cinderella story, filled with as many cliff-hangers as possible! Told from the point of view of a strong Cinderella and the dashing Prince of the Rats (who becomes her coachman on the night of the ball), it debuts on August 23, 2016 from Macmillan/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Margaret Ferguson Books.
Bridget would like to thank her amazing Resource Room mentors and colleagues, who, along with her Wilson Language System trainers, taught her everything she knows (though any mistakes, and opinions, are her own). Text excerpts, where appropriate,
©Wilson Language Training Corporation
In the comments below, Bridget would love to hear what’s worked for you in the Resource Room, classroom, or home, to make workbook instruction more fun or story-friendly!
Your words are so very true! Reading engagement starts with getting to know the child first. It takes time, but you just might find the key!
Thank you! And in a pullout Resource Room setting, our time is circumscribed, but we’re usually one-on-one with the students…a rare opportunity for the kind of engagement you mention!
I was a Reading First Literacy Coach for several years. Working one-on-one with students was a wonderful opportunity! After the program grant ended, I decided to go back to the classroom…I missed having a class of children!
Absolutely love this! So true, “teach students to become readers, rather than simply teach them to read.” Your students are lucky to have you!
Thank you, Carol! I’m no longer in the classroom, but now that I’ve become an author, I feel like I can work on the same goal from another angle.
Thank you for this great piece. But…you SHOULD be critical of the curriculum. How many thousands of dollars does the publisher receive each time a school invests? They can provide both quality stories or nonfiction AND materials that assist in learning to read. These cannot be mutually exclusive if children are to become lifelong readers who think books are at least as exciting as television!
Oh Jane, I heartily agree that those who write curricula should always be open to feedback from those who put it into practice. A loop of increasing excellence results from such dialogue. In this case, I tried to highlight how a very small-scale change–one that people might not even have thought about– could possibly result in big gains for our precious kids. The method we used at our school was a truly effective tool and I swear by it. Yet I feel that it could be still more effective with Story at its heart.
Great post! I completely agree with you! 😀
I’m so glad you liked it!
This reminds me of the calls for “inspiring” and engaging early readers to replace the dry Dick & Jane primers of the 1950s, which led Theodor Geisel to write The Cat in the Hat. It makes me sad that, so many years later, there are many curriculum developers who seem not to have taken these lessons to heart. Thanks so much for this post and for the work you are doing with your students!
Thank you, Ali! I love to think of it this way!