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

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