Friday, April 30, 2010

Good Reader's Habit #5 -- Determining Importance

Good readers, we now know, have habits that make them better at reading. They make connections, they visualize, they question and predict, and they make inferences about what they're reading. Today we're going to look at another habit: determining importance.

When we read, we need to have an idea of what's important in the story. At first, this isn't a critical need -- stories for very young children are simple and the focus of the story is usually clear. But as children get older, stories become more complex. They begin to have extensive detail, subplots, themes, symbolism...all that stuff that made you run screaming from English class in high school. But, if you teach your child how to determine what's important in the story, chances are you can keep the screaming to a minimum.

My 3rd grader recently had to read the opening chapters of Dear Austin, a book about the underground railroad, and pull out 3 important details. She had to do this without really knowing what was going to happen next in the book. In this sense, she was predicting, but in another sense the exercise forced her to examine how the author wrote to try to figure out if any weight was being given to particular details, details which might be central to the story.

In the first few chapters we learn that 1. Levi has been left behind when his family went to Oregon because he was ill. 2. His friend, Jupiter, is the son of former slaves. 3. Levi hates dancing. 4. Levi lives with a guardian, Miss Amelia. 5. Levi is often in trouble for boyish pranks. 6. Jupiter never speaks and that some people say he saw something terrible when he was a baby that scared the voice right out of him. 7. Levi has a friend named Possum. 8. Jupiter has a sister named Darcy who sings all the time.

Now we have to weigh that information. We know quite a bit about Levi and his life, but what qualifies as important? What's going to impact the story later on? Even without having read the book, you can guess from the above list that points 2 and 6 are likely to be important to the rest of the story. Partly we know this because we have wide experience with books --we know how a book is 'set up' and we can guess where it might be taking us. We gather clues from the back cover, from things our teacher or parent says, from the cover picture, and we use that to help filter and rank the details as they come in. Also, we can guess at their importance because the author devotes just a skosh more description to them than to the other pieces of information she gives us. And, those things seem the most likely ones that you could build a story around. We sense that there's a deeper mystery here to Jupiter's silence.

One way to thinkk about this is to consider which details you would include if you had to tell someone about a book. What details of the plot would you include? As soon as you can, even with picture books, get your child to re-tell you the story. This helps them with their ability to pull out the plot of the book. Keep doing this as the books get longer and more complex. Talk about the details of the book and try to figure out which might be most important to the story. Look at the cover, the back cover, the pictures in the book -- in picture books, the most important parts of the story are usually the ones that are illustrated. In a sense, you are determining importance backwards: you read the story and then decide what was critical. BUT, this is fine because it gives kids a picture of how books work, how details contribute to the overall story. Eventually, they'll develop a sense of which details are likely to be important and be able to predict with a fair amount of accuracy.

Determining importance is easy to do with a good writer. Good authors will often spend more time on important details -- describing a place or person very thoroughly -- if they're going to figure prominently later in the book. They tend to spend less time on minor characters and unimportant details. Also, they'll often repeat things that are important or contribute to the theme.

Now, this is where Bookivore has to tell you the ugly truth about books. Just because it's in a bookstore with a nice shiny cover and some good press on the back doesn't mean it's well written. The same is true of textbooks. In fact, a study about 20 years ago concluded that some of the worst written books out there, in terms of clarity, were textbooks.

If your child is struggling with determining importance, it may be that the writing really isn't that good. As a parent, it's your job to get in there and read it with them to help them figure out what's important. This is particularly true with textbooks. Never assume that because your district has purchased it that it's the best thing since sliced bread.

Learning to determine importance is a process; don't be discouraged if your child doesn't get it right away. My 3rd grader, who is a very proficient reader, was completely stumped by her Dear Austin assignment. But that's okay: it was a teaching moment. And now, when she encounters a similar assignment, she'll have that experience to fall back on.

Next Up: Good Reader's Habit #6: Synthesis

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Learning to Get Along

I really like this series. We got the first three books ages ago when they comprised the whole series, but now it's grown to about 15 books, covering topics like politeness, sharing, empathy, safety, fears, anger, listening, acceptance, giving, and participation. The author, Cheri Meiners, is a former elementary educator who now teaches at the university level. She does a nice job of breaking these topics down so they're approachable for the preschool/kindergarten set.
Pictures are bright and nicely rendered. They do an especially good job of conveying emotions through facial expressions. Also, the pictures are very multicultural: the central character of Understand and Care is Asian; Be Polite and Kind's central character is Latino. Other books do a similarly good job of including children of many races.

These books are also good ones for starting conversations about feelings, reactions, other people's feelings, behaviors...just about anything you might need to talk to your 2-6 year old about. My almost-4-year-old loves Understand and Care; she enjoys identifying how people feel from their facial expressions and we spent some time talking about what you might say to someone who felt afraid or sad or angry. Such a great springboard to talking about and teaching empathy -- how do other people feel? How can you use your imagination to figure out what they're feeling? We've been having a lot of tantrums around here lately, so Cool Down and Work Through Anger is looking like a good title for us to pick up. And we've been talking about blessing other people, so Reach Out and Give might be another possibility.
These may be available at your public library -- ours carries the first three titles -- and they're all available in paperback through your favorite bookseller. It might even be worth checking your church library, as they were popular with churches when they first came out.

Images courtesy of

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Magazines for Kids

Access to books is a critical aspect of cultural capital. But equally important is exposure to a range of texts and formats -- it allows children to transfer the skills they learn reading fiction to other mediums, and adapt them to works of different format and lengths.

Magazines are a great way to give kids experience with different kinds of texts -- poems, non-fiction articles, short stories, song lyrics.

Back in the stone age, when Bookivore was a kid, there was one magazine for kids: Highlights. That was it, folks. Now there is a veritable feast of magazines for children, some quite excellent, some just thinly-veiled advertisements for products, TV shows and movies. Highlights is still a favorite at our house: it's far more colorful than what it was when I was a kid, and nicely multicultural too, teaching about Diwali, Ramadan, Chinese New Year and a host of other cultural celebrations and traditions. The magazine works hard at promoting good values and good behavior, which it does this from a sense of fair play rather than from any particular belief system. It's a nice blend of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, comic strips and puzzles that appeals to kids from 3 to 10.

A nice addition to the Highlights stable is High Five, their magazine for 2-5 year olds. The text is much simpler, pictures are larger and fill the pages. It has the same focus on good morals, though the message is obviously greatly simplified. One lovely feature of both these magazines is no advertising.

I absolutely love these next three, put out by the National Wildlife Federation: Ranger Rick (at the top of this post) Your Big Backyard, and Wild Animal Baby.

Like the two Highlights magazines, the NWF's offerings are stepped for different age groups. Ranger Rick is for ages 7 and up, though for independent reading your child might need to be a little older. Your Big Backyard is for 3-7 year olds, and Wild Animal Baby is for 1-4 year olds.

One nice feature about Wild Animal Baby is that it comes in a board book format of heavier cardboard, rather than flimsy magazine pages. It's perfect for little hands to hold. The photography in all these magazines is fantastic and the range of articles is impressive -- whatever animals your little ones like, they'll show up eventually in these pages, one way or another. Another blessing: no ads to disrupt your reading.

National Geographic Kids is another one we get, but I would be lying if I said it was a favorite. It was a gift, otherwise I'd cancel my subscription. I find the layout overly busy and it's loaded with ads for candy and video games. Additionally, it contains feature articles on movies -- special effects, actor interviews, etc. Not strictly National Geographic stuff -- more along the lines of paid endorsements. In and among the plugs are some interesting articles about animal rescues, critter cams, and habitats, but it's pretty buried in junk. Ostensibly for 6-14 year olds, but I can't see kids sticking with it that long.

Another one for 2-6 year olds that gets good reviews is Ladybug. It's colorful and full of stories, poems. The publishers also have a magazine called Babybug, which is made of heavy stock like Wild Animal Baby. They also publish one called Click! which is geared more towards science and nature.

Of a similar nature is Spider, which is for 6-9 year olds. It includes stories, poems, articles and illustrations from around the world.

For older kids, there are magazines about science, like Odyssey.

And magazines about world history, like Calliope.

If you have a sports nut, Sports Illustrated for Kids might be a good choice. Parents rated this one very highly because it focuses on the positive achievements of athletes and their good sportsmanship, rather than on their questionable activities and sexual antics. One word of caution here would be that kids may assume the adult version of SI is okay because of their exposure to SIKids. Obviously the articles in SI are going to burst some bubbles, so that's something to consider.

Appleseeds is a magazine full of non-fiction and social studies articles for kids ages 7-9. Each issue covers a particular theme: Becoming President, Whiz Kids, Unusual Structures, Halloween. Rather a narrow age range, but the content makes it of use in giving kids experience with non-fiction text.

Ask is for 7-10 year olds covering science, inventions, recipes, web activities, projects, and other activities. Each issue is devoted to a particular theme -- water, camouflage, migration, the musical brain, etc.

Cricket has been around since the '70s and is another publication that celebrates fiction, though this time from established, even classical writers like Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Shel Silverstein, and Lloyd Alexander. It also includes games and puzzles. It's geared for 9-14 year olds.

This is really just a sampling. There are many more publications for kids, of varying quality: American Girl Magazine, Kids Discover, Boy's Life, Cobblestone, Girl's Life, Disney Princess, Dig, Nick Jr. Preschool Playroom. The list goes on and on.

Before subscribing, go to your library and see what these magazines offer -- look at several issues, if possible, to get a sense of the kind of content they regularly offer. Be leery of magazine that contain a lot of ads: they really will encourage your kids to pester you for Yogos, or whatever. And if the subscription prices seem too high, remember that magazine subscriptions make excellent birthday and Christmas gifts from Grandma and Grandpa. All of our subscriptions have been gifts and they are very much appreciated.

Images courtesy of and National Wildlife Federation

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day: Pond Circle

In honor of Earth Day, here's a book for the preschool/kindergarten set that clarifies, very simply and beautifully, the circle of life in a pond. Pond Circle, by Betsy Franco, is written on a "This is the House that Jack Built" model: "This is the algae, the jade green algae," and "This is the skunk, the shy striped skunk," etc. Each animal depends on the others for food, and they all depend, directly or indirectly, on the algae, which is the foundation of the whole pond.

If there were no algae, there would be no mayfly nymph; without the nymph, there would be no diving beetle; without the beetle, no frogs would eat, and so on through snakes and owls and raccoons until at last we meet the stalking coyote. At the very back of the book are a couple pages with more facts about each animal or plant in the story.

Love the pictures on this one; they're either painted on wood or painted to look like wood grain, the grain itself suggesting the ripples in the pond water or the eddying colors of a sunset. Pictures are all on 2-page spreads, very large and colorful, making this a good choice for a group read-aloud. This one will play especially well with preschoolers because of its engaging rhythm and repeated word patterns.

The publisher says this one is good from age 4 up through 3rd grade, but I doubt you'd find many 9 year olds wanting to read it. On the other hand, I bet they'd listen in if you were reading it to a younger child. A nice book to introduce children to the idea of the interconnectedness of our environment.

Images courtesy of

Mexican Whiteboy

This one took some getting into. It's a rough read -- the author, Matt De La Pena, more or less drops you into Danny Lopez' world without a lot of background. And Danny is a kid caught between two cultures, neither one of which feels precisely like home. Hence the title.

But it could have been called Mexican Blackboy just as easily, because the story passes back and forth between Danny, who is half white, half Mexican, and Uno, who is half Mexican, half black. Both long for their fathers: Uno to live with his, away from his abusive stepfather, and Danny just to find his, who's gone off the radar, possibly to Mexico.

I chose this one to review, not because it's new -- it's from 2008 -- but because it recently showed up on a list of books for reluctant readers and boys, which are sometimes the same thing. It has a lot of baseball stuff in it; Danny is a pitcher with a golden arm but he can't control his delivery in clutch situations. He is socially awkward, never feeling like he belongs. He is too dark, too Mexican for his San Diego prep school, and among his Mexican relatives in National City, he is too light. Also, he speaks no Spanish; he is completely left out of about 50% of their conversations. Still, he chooses to spend the summer with his Mexican family.

The language in this book is very coarse, but authentic. Having grown up in the Southwest and having attended a high school that was about 15% Hispanic, the characters' voices are true-to-life as I remember them, and having taught high school for 10 years, I can vouch for the swearing -- there's a lot of it, just as you'd hear in most high school corridors. There's also drinking, pot smoking, and drug dealing (talked about, not actually done). And there's poverty. Most of the people in National City are poor. And many of them are hopeless in their poverty.

The language was hard to get over, but there is much in this story to recommend it. I found myself really bleeding for Danny, who wants so much to know his dad and can't figure out what he did to make him leave. One possibility, he thinks, is that he's just not Mexican enough for his dad. His distress runs very deep. He has more or less quit talking, fading into the background. But at the same time, he's developed a habit of digging his fingernails into his forearm to remind himself he's human. He's done it so often, his arm is scarred. And he writes long, imaginary letters to his dad in his head; letters in which he tells his dad how successful he is, how popular. None of it is true: it's his deep, deep longing for his father to want him, to approve of him. His emptiness, his fractured spirit, got to me. I wanted to deck his stupid mom, gushing on and on about her new (white) boyfriend, the successful San Francisco businessman, while totally ignoring her son's pain, his utter lostness. Her selfishness was hard to take.

There's a subplot with a girl named Liberty, another "halfie" who speaks no English. It's part of Danny's oeuvre that he longs for her and yet can't communicate with her at all, both because he can't speak Spanish and because he can barely speak around people anyway. Danny does resolve some of his issues, both with Liberty and his dad (who (SPOILER ALERT) he discovers is actually in prison). It puts a different complexion on things to know his dad isn't staying away because he doesn't love him. However, before he figures out where his dad is, there's a scene of breathtaking violence in which Danny witnesses his uncle run a man down and then beat him senseless, and then run over him again, breaking his legs. It's meant to give Danny (and the reader) a glimpse into the psyche that landed his dad in jail, although Danny doesn't understand it that way yet -- he only knows that this violence somehow reminds him of his dad. Danny is so horrified, he vomits, and frankly, I got a little queasy myself. It's a powerful, visceral scene, not for the faint of heart.

I'm on the fence with this one. On the one hand, it's authentic, it's compelling, it's got real emotional depth and is an insightful portrait of what abandonment, divorce, and parental selfishness do to kids. On the other hand, it's authentic in the roughest possible way, and that isn't a pretty thing. So I'm going to be a weenie and not come down on either side of this one, except to say that it's a high school book ONLY -- no lower. And an upper high school book at that. It's rough, but it has its merits. Just be aware of what your child might be in for if this one pops up on a booklist and consider well whether your child has the maturity to deal with it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Challenged Books

Yahoo! News reported recently that Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books are now on the list of most frequently challenged books put out by the American Library Association.

In this, she joins the Harry Potter books (which actually fell out of the top ten most challenged books this year). I bring you this information for a particular reason.

If you have a tween girl, she has probably either read, or asked to read, the Twilight books. Yes, they are about vampires. Yes, there's a lot of sexual tension in the books, but the characters remain steadfastly chaste until they marry in book 4 and even then, nothing is explicitly described. Yes, they're somewhat violent. But really, in the greater context of young adult and teen lit, they're pretty tame. How do I know this?

I've read them.

Another perennial member of the ALA challenged list is The Color Purple. I read this one as a freshman in college about a million years ago when it was still new and fresh. It is a very good book, and I might be okay with a senior English class reading it, but probably not much lower. It's got some very brutal themes -- child rape, separation, lesbianism, abuse. Perhaps it's popping up in high schools because it's a handy book-movie combo.

Other challenged books are for younger kids, like one about two male penguins adopting a baby. This one is in many elementary libraries, possibly unbeknownst to district parents.

Now, I am not writing this to send you marching, insurgent-style, to your school libraries to demand the removal of these texts. You are certainly free to do that, but that's not my point. My point is this: you the parent, need to know what your child is bringing home to read, either from the library or from teacher-distributed texts in class.

Last year my kindergarten son brought home a book in which the charming little animal characters decided to conduct a seance. We sent that one back to the library after explaining to him that we didn't like stories about spooky, icky stuff like that. And of course, there was the incident with the middle school book assigned to my eight year old. In the nicest possible way, I objected to this book and my daughter didn't have to read it.

You don't get to be like this. Unless, of course, you don't care what your kids might be absorbing from what they read. Keep tabs on what they're reading, object in a nice way if you don't like it. Send library books back unread if they don't fit your geo-political or religious views. And always be nice, be nice, be nice.

You don't do anyone any favors if you act like a jerk.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Good Reader's Habit #4: Inferring

Today you need to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and pull out your magnifying glass. Or get out your CSI kit. Or your CSI Miami kit. Or whatever. Today we're going to play detective. Making Inferences is a lot like being a detective. It's also a lot like making predictions. However, when you make inferences you are making them about things in the present, rather than about the future. Another way to put it is to say that you are drawing conclusions about something.

We actually do this all the time, with varying degrees of accuracy. If you're in a conversation with someone talking about husbands and she suddenly bursts out crying, you may infer that something is wrong with her marriage. You may or may not be correct -- it could be something totally different -- but usually we try to fill in the gaps to better understand events or behaviors. The critical aspect here is that we follow some line of reasoning, some trail of evidence, that leads us to this conclusion.

Children make inferences, too. When they arrive home off the bus and Mom is standing in the doorway, hands on hips, tapping her foot and scowling, they may infer that she has discovered they left the lid off the hamster cage again and Mister Nibbles is loose in the house somewhere. Or they may infer that the principal called and she now knows about the gum incident on the bus that morning. Or they may just infer that she is mad about something and hope it's not something they've done.

Like detectives, we have to examine all the details and come up with a conclusion -- an inference -- that fits the evidence. The same is true in reading. Really good writers seldom tell you exactly how a character is feeling or explain the character's motives completely. We are left to figure all that out by ourselves, using the clues from descriptions and actions.

Wordless picture books rely almost entirely on making inferences to understand the story. Take Good Night Gorilla, by Peggy Rathman. The little gorilla is following after the zookeeper as he puts the animals to bed, but the little gorilla has gotten hold of the zookeeper's keys. What is he doing with the keys? The gorilla is pictured more than once with his finger to his lips, telling the audience "Shhh!" Why does he do this? Children can look at the pictures and infer 1) the little gorilla is letting the animals out, and 2) he doesn't want the zookeeper to know. It's up to the parent to pose the questions that allow the child to make those inferences. You are showing them both the evidence, and that there's something to be concluded from it.

Here's another scenario, one that's a little more complex in terms of the conclusions that can be drawn. In the book The Night Fairy Flory has been practicing her stinging spell. She has practiced it so much she is begining to change physically -- her chin and ears are growing sharper and pointier the more she practices. From this we can infer several things. Flory is practicing her stinging spell so often because she is afraid. She wants to protect herself, so she practices it a lot. We can also infer that growing pointy around the edges is probably not normal for a fairy. Flory is alone, except for Skuggle, who she knows would eat her if it weren't for her stinging ability. We can infer that she needs a friend who cares about her.

In picture books, draw your child's attention to the illustrations and ask questions to get at the characters' feelings or motives. In David Gets In Trouble, David tells his mother he wasn't responsible for taking the big bite out of the cake. However, since he's saying it with chocolate crumbs all over his face, get your child to make an inference: do you think he's telling the truth? (no) How can you tell he's lying? (he has crumbs all over him, he has cake on his mouth) Later, David fesses up. Ask: why do you think he told his mom the truth? (he felt bad, he felt guilty, he's sorry he lied, he's afraid she won't love him). Or just model the process for them: "Oh, David has crumbs all over his face -- I think he ate the cake and is telling a lie about it."

With older kids, stop the flow of the narrative and point out the evidence that leads you (and them, watching you) to a certain conclusion. "See, Edmund is trying to make himself seem more grown up, more like the older kids, by selling Lucy out. He's telling them Narnia was all a game -- lying about it -- so he can feel better and bigger than her." In about 3 seconds, you've traced the chain of evidence and drawn some conclusions about it.

This one, I'll freely admit, is trickier than the other habits because it requires a little more thought on the part of the parent. But it's a hugely important critical thinking skill that will serve them well in everything they read -- fiction and non-fiction alike.

Next Up: Good Reader's Habit #5: Determining Importance

Friday, April 16, 2010

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me is a book about surprises, but not necessarily the kind of suprises you'd expect, or even feel very comfortable with. Twelve-year-old Miranda lives in New York City with her single mom, she has a best-friend-since-babyhood in Sal, she likes her mom's boyfriend, she's content. And then, things start to fall apart.

First, there's a traumatic incident where Sal is hurt. After that, he refuses to see her. Their friendship, he tells her, is over. She has to explore new territory by navigating the world of girl friendships, something she's never bothered to do before. It's tricky. Then Miranda's apartment is broken into but nothing seems to have been stolen. Unsettling, weird. But not as weird as finding the notes.

The notes are unsigned and they tell her things that haven't happened yet. Are they from the future? Who is sending them? This mystery plays out against the backdrop of Miranda's normal, 'average' life -- the minefield of middle-school relationships, girl-rivalry, and tentative steps toward maturity. Somehow it's all linked together, but Miranda can't quite see how until a moment of utter clarity that comes to her at a taping of the $20,000 Pyramid.

Oh, I liked this book. I didn't realize it was the 2009 Newbery winner until I sat down to write this post, but having read it, I can see why it won. It resonated for me on so many levels, not least of which was the fact that the story takes place in 1979, when I myself was 13, so all Miranda's issues occur in a context that felt very familiar, right down to t-shirts with rainbows and Dick Clark hosting the Pyramid.

But beyond the middle-school stuff, it's got some elements of science fiction too: it's kind of like The Time Traveler's Wife Jr. -- there's some mind-blowing plot stuff that follows the same it-will-happen-because-it-already-has-happened logic. There are many references to Miranda's favorite book, the sci-fi children's classic A Wrinkle in Time, which adds more layers to the mystery. And when the mystery does become clear, it's one of those "ah-ha!" moments, closely followed by an "oh!" moment when you realize all the implications of what you've just realized.


There's some mild swearing, a hell, a G-d, but nothing else, and although Miranda's mom has a boyfriend and there is prolonged discussion about whether he should be given a key to their apartment, things don't get more explicit than that and he never seems to sleep over. There's a little scene where Miranda imagines the evolution of man (which I remember still being taught in conjunction with creationism in 1979), but she's using it to try to gain some perspective on her troubles, not to hammer home any belief system.

It's middle school lit, it's sci-fi, it's tragedy, and yet it defies being placed in a narrow little category. Miranda's voice is compelling and the book ended up being a very fast read. It's good, people. Really good.

For 5th grade and up, maybe 4th grade although I think the subject matter might be a little over their heads. Seriously, don't miss this one.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Good Reader's Habit #3: Questioning and Predicting

You wake up in the morning, already a little late. The sky is cloudy, even a little dark. You don't have time to catch the weather forecast so you grab your umbrella -- it looks like rain and you may as well be prepared.

In your head, you've just engaged in two behaviors that good readers often exhibit: questioning and predicting. You are wondering what the weather will be like, then you predict it might rain and prepare accordingly. This sort of thing is automatic -- you barely register it as conscious thought -- but some readers need a little push to engage in similar activities while they read.
I should say that technically, questioning and predicting are two separate habits, but they are closely linked, so I am including them together. Questioning is just that -- the reader poses questions about the text. The questions may be about anything: why is the character doing that? How fast can a whitetail deer run? What is behind the black door? Is the river going to flood? What does honeycomb feel like? How tall is Mt. Kilimanjaro?

Questions don't have to have set or specific answers; they're merely an indication that the reader is thinking more deeply about the text than just a surface read. Consider this: if your child is spending all of his or her time decoding the text (see the Quick Guide if you don't know what this means) then it's doubtful s/he is taking the time to think deeply about the content of the story. All his or her energy is going toward decoding and not toward comprehension. Questioning is a way to encourage that deeper thinking.

Somewhat similar is Predicting. Predicting is a way for the reader to become invested in the outcome of the story. As soon as your child makes a prediction about a story, s/he will immediately become more interested in finishing the story -- to see whether his or her prediction was correct. Good readers make lots of predictions, about both big and small things. Ever read a mystery novel? If you've ever thought "The parking garage attendant did it," or "It's going to be the sister-in-law," then you've engaged in predicting. And you can't wait to get to the end to see if you were right. And then you have to tell everyone you figured it out by the end of chapter 6.

It feels good when we predict correctly. Take the rain analogy from the beginning paragraph: if it doesn't rain, you'll shrug and say "well, at least I was prepared." but if it does rain, you'll think "HA! I knew it!" and you'll either be unbearably smug or quietly self-satisfied for the rest of the day.

Good readers make predictions about the story as they go along. Let's take one story and see how questioning and predicting might play out. Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis begins with a mystery. The Pevensie children have returned, they think, to Narnia, but nothing is familiar. The questions and predictions that follow cover the whole book, not just the opening mystery.

Questions: Where are the children? Why is everything unfamiliar? What has happened? Why is everyone afraid of the dwarves? How did Cair Paravel become an island? I wonder how hard it is to shoot a bow and arrow? I wonder what bear meat tastes like? What do dwarves really look like? Why does King Miraz want to kill Caspian? How will Caspian escape? What happened to Caspian's horse? Who is Dr. Cornelius really? Why can't anyone see Aslan but Lucy? How will she get them to follow her? Will the others ever see Aslan? I wonder if it would be scary to stand next to Aslan? What will they find in Aslan's How? What does a werewolf look like? Will the Penvensies go home to England?

Prediction: They are in Narnia, they just don't know it. Aslan is hiding from them because he's mad at them. They're going to find some bad guys in Aslan's How -- maybe some of Miraz's soldiers. Caspian's army will beat Miraz's. Susan is going to marry Prince Caspian. The Pevensies are going to stay in Narnia now.

This is just a short list -- and notice that the questioning list is much bigger and wider-ranging. Predictions are more specific and answerable.

Like any habit, this can be modeled by the parent. Find places in the text where you can ask questions -- remember, these can be anything; don't feel like you have to come up with something deep or profound, just roll with it. It's an expression of curiosity, not a doctoral dissertation. One of my all-time favorite questions which one of my kids asked one night when we were reading fairy tales was "What does porridge taste like?" It's all about curiosity. For predicting, just stopping periodically and asking "What do you think is going to happen?" is a good place to start. As you get comfortable with it, you can make your predicting questions more specific: "How do you think Frog will get Toad to wake up?" or "What do you think is wrong with Old Yeller?" or "Do you think Gregor is going to die at the end of Code of Claw?" The more you do it, the more skilled you will get at it, and the more you model it externally for your children, the more likely they will be to do it internally as they read.

Next Up: Good Reader's Habit #4: Inferring

Monday, April 12, 2010

Classic Monday: The Borrowers

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, is about tiny people, no bigger than dollhouse dolls, who "borrow" from the Human Beans. In fact, they're sure that the Human Beans are put on the earth simply to provide for borrowers. But the borrowers in this novel have fallen on hard times -- all the many little folk who used to live in the great country house have had to leave (or 'emigrate,' as one of them puts it) either for lack of food to borrow or because the worst of all fates has befallen them: they've been 'seen.'

All that's left are Pod, his wife Homily, and their daughter Arietty. They manage to eke out a living on scraps from the kitchen and other things they scavenge from the rest of the house, all the while avoiding the Human Beans. Until one day when Pod, on a borrowing mission upstairs, is 'seen' by an unexpected house guest -- a boy, the owner's nephew, who has been sent into the country to recuperate from an illness.

Fearful that their lives will be up-ended beyond recall, Pod and Homily finally tell Arietty, who is 12, about borrowing, the Human Beans, the whole world above their little hidey-hole under the floor in the kitchen. Arietty, tired of living underground where it's always dark, begs to be allowed to go borrowing. Her parents at first refuse: girls don't borrow (the story, after all, takes place at the end of the Victorian period), but finally they relent because, they realize, if anything were to happen to them, Arietty would be quite alone and unable to take care of herself.

On her first foray into the world upstairs, Arietty is herself 'seen' by the same boy, and far from being afraid, she is emboldened and even more curious. What follows is the story of how their relationship does turn everything topsy-turvy and nearly costs the Borrowers their lives.

There is an implication in the book that some of the Human Beans over indulge in alcohol -- this is how they explain away the sightings of the little people. It's glancingly handled, and went right over my 8 year old's head, but it's there. Most of the characters who are supposed to be drinking too heavily (and thus seeing tiny people where they shouldn't) are fairly unappealing people -- an their supposed drinking is also treated as a failing, not glorified in any way.

This is a great book for a read-aloud. The language is a little more formal than kids will be used to -- a product of an earlier era, but easy enough for an adult to navigate. Books like this really tune the ear do different rhythms and expose children to different syntax (word order) and sentence structures, all of which build cultural capital which will be important as they move up the grades.

More than that, it's a great story. If your child loved The Littles chapter book series, or has a thing for fairies, give this one a try. Much of the tiny-creature appeal is here as well, but on a more sophisticated level.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Good Reader's Habit #2: Visualize

Whoa -- that's a little mind blowing, isn't it? But it has much to do with today's habit: visualizing as you read. So think of this as an inner eye.

Good readers, remember, are made, not born. Nurture is all, when it comes to reading. No one wakes up one morning, spontaneously able to read. And anyone can learn to read better. Kids are a blank slate here; you can mold their little brains into efficient, competent readers with only a few little tweaks in how you're doing things already.

Visualizing is simply picturing in your mind the events, settings and characters of a story as you read it. It's like showing a little movie in your head. Some kids do this very naturally, but it is easy enough to teach if you don't mind a little weirdness at the outset.

You, the parent, need to "think aloud" for the child and model the process of visualizing. You can't invite them into your head for popcorn and a flick, so you have to speak the movie to them, so they can see how it's done.

Visualizing doesn't become critical until children move away from picture books. In picture books, the visualizing is done for them. Every page visually represents the story for them. You can, however, use picture books to show how the action, characters and settings are reflected in the artwork. "Look, there's Mudge shaking all the water off his coat! Oh, now Henry is really wet!. Henry sure doesn't look happy." or "Oh look, there's the puffy white circle on Henry's hand. That's where the bee stung him. That sure looks like it hurts!" This also teaches kids to look at the pictures for cues and clues about the story. When they begin reading independently, they will naturally look to the pictures to help them comprehend the text.

Later, though, the pictures become few and far between. That's when true visualization has to step in and provide a clear inner picture of what's going on.

When I was reading How to Eat Fried Worms to my 6 year old, we read a scene in which the main character's mother makes a worm sundae. We took a minute to "build" the sundae in our minds -- first the ice cream scoops, then the marshmallow sauce, then the whipped cream, then the cherries on top, and on either end, the plump, fleshy head and tail of a nightcrawler sticking out. My son scrinched up his face and shuddered. It was sooooo gross! He had a very clear, mental image of that sundae, complete with the worm and that is good practice for when he has to picture something more complex, like the encounter between Harry Potter and the giant spiders in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, or the "confession" scene from The Scarlet Letter, or the living arrangements inside a Yurt, or the true nastiness of the winter at Valley Forge, or whatever -- the applications are endless.

It feels weird, at first, to stop the reading and talk through a mental image with your child. But it will feel more natural with a little practice. Don't feel like you have to do it for every facet of every book. Choose events or characters or settings that seem important to the story, or particularly colorful and start there. Or if something strikes you as particularly beautiful, try that. Or pick something that's unclear and work on picturing it together -- that's what good readers do when they aren't quite sure about something they've read; they go back and re-visualize it so they've got it clear in their heads. I think it's particularly helpful to take something unclear to you, the parent, and let your child listen to you talk through your visualizing process. It makes the point that everyone runs into reading snags from time to time, and here's one way to get out of them.

Visualizing dovetails nicely with Making Connections; it's easy to say something like "remember when we went to the zoo and the lions were out? I can just picture Aslan stalking around so silently, like that big lion we saw. Remember how big his teeth were? Can you just picture how much bigger Aslan's teeth must be?"

Next Up: Questioning and Predicting