Thursday, September 20, 2012

K - 2 Pre Reading Skills - Visualizing Language

Pre Reading Stories are tales that help students focus on elements of comprehension without the mechanics of reading getting in the way.  This entry deals with the concept of visualizing language.

Being able to transform a series of words into visual images is a critical skill a person must master if they are to become strong, lifelong readers.  

We live in a society where a majority of the entertainment available for pre readers does not involve any active visualization on the part of the participant.  Video games which used to be crude affairs, can be as lifelike or perhaps even more lifelike than real life!  Things move in ultra slow motion or have 'epic' detailed scenes that send the watcher over the moon.  What these scenes do not do is force the participant to come up with their own images.  With the advent of television, hand held devices, computers, notebooks and the rest of our visual entertainment, most people do not have the opportunity to develop or practice the art of visualization.

The skill of being able to look at a string of words or even hear a string of words and convert them into images is something that most children will do only if they have to.  Example:  If you have ever tried to read a picture book to a group of kids and you neglect to show them the picture before you turn the page, you know that a small rebellion will break out in the room.  "You didn't show us the picture!"  The students are listening to you speak, but many aren't bothering to visualize.  They are waiting for you to show them what they are supposed to see.  If you ask a group of children to draw you pictures of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, you are likely to get a large number of Disney-esque looking pictures or images from some book or movie they've seen. 

Why is this so important?  Well, there is something that happens at the end of third grade that causes headaches for students who have learned how to sound out words and say simple sentences but never learned to visualize; they get to fourth grade and discover they cannot read.  Andrew Biemiller calls this the fourth grade slump.  The reason why this occurs is because between third and fourth grade students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.  They are expected to go from the simple mechanics of reading to the much more complex skill of comprehension and some of them do not have all of the pieces in place to tackle this new process.  

For many people, comprehension is a skill that seems to weave itself seamlessly into the process of reading.  For others, this plank of reading is mystifying and must be taken apart piece by piece until the student can figure out what doesn't quite work.  Sometimes a student learns to fake it and nobody is aware of their reading problems until they are in fifth or sixth grade or higher.  That's when things really get difficult.

You know you have a student who doesn't visualize well when they have trouble decoding simple sentences.  Just because a student can read a sentence doesn't mean they have any idea what they just read.  By the same token, just because a student doesn't like to read doesn't mean they can't visualize.  Sometimes a student says they don't like to read, but they are happy to read sports magazines.  If they are big sports fans, it may be much easier for them to visualize something going on during a football game or concerning their favorite athlete than the blossoming of the cherry trees at the capitol.

What does storytelling have to do with any of this?  Storytelling is an amazing way to get students to begin to do their own visualizing about a wide variety of topics.  The storyteller does not provide very many visual clues.   Their tales are all about language and images.  Building images with words is the very exercise that a brain needs as it begins to puzzle out how to build images when it is confronted by text.  Removing the mechanics of working out sounds allows the brain to focus on the dynamics of the language and the images being presented.  Students who read well or enjoy reading, talk about seeing a movie in their minds when they read.  That is what reading is supposed to do.  This is why the movie is never as good as the book for most readers.  This is why, for many people, they still see different images even after watching a movie.  The Hermione in my Harry Potter books does not look like Emma Watson.  It is nothing personal, I just see someone else.

Pre Reading stories tend to be simple tales that have very simple, visual language that is repetitive and easy to learn.  The characters are larger than life and often very exaggerated.  They fall into he realm of the folk and fairytale size creatures and they have extreme personalities.  The characters are fun, over the top in some cases, and very, very silly lots of the time.  I love it when first graders smack their foreheads in disbelief at the folly of the characters in the story.  

I am often told that the teachers and adults have as much fun looking around the audience at the kids as they do watching the storyteller.  I understand, I enjoy looking at the kids in the audience as well!  Watching them see the events unfolding in front of them is always a great deal of fun.

I leave this entry with a small event that happened some years ago.  I presented a show at a school in Evanston, Il.  It is called The Squeaky Door.  It is a silly story in which a boy is afraid of the sound a squeaky door makes and he screams.  His grandmother offers to put animals in his bed so he won't be frightened.  First she brings in a cat, then the dog, then a goat, then a horse and, depending on how the audience is reacting, a cow.  In the end, the bed breaks, grandmother puts the animals back where they belong, and then she goes next door to get the carpenter to come and fix the bed.  I performed this story for a K - 5 audience and we all had a hilarious time.  When the show was over, I had a workshop with the teachers where I was talking about visualization.  One of them stopped me and told me she thought it was hilarious the way I ran all over the stage gathering all of the animals.  I stared at her.  I don't move around the stage when I perform.  I stand in one place with a mic standing in front of me.  I told her I hadn't moved.  She didn't believe me.  In fact, none of the teachers believed me.  I pointed out that the mic was on a stand and that I would have had to drag it around the stage if I'd moved.  They stared at me, unwilling to believe that what they were certain they saw didn't actually happen.

Storytelling can transport a listener and give them images and ideas.  They are an effective tool to enhancing visualization, a key element in developing good listening and comprehension skills.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pre Reading Skills - Predictions

Pre Reading Stories are tales that help students focus on elements of comprehension without the mechanics of reading getting in the way.  This entry deals with the concept of predictions.

Being able to make predictions while reading and revise those predictions as the information is revealed is a critical skill in the process of comprehension.  Readers must learn how to pay attention to texts in a way that allows them to make both short and long term predictions.

Short term predictions are the sorts you make when you first meet a new character or encounter an event.  The text should give clues about what is happening with the characters and surroundings.  The reader should start making predictions every time some bit of information is revealed.  These predictions can be anything from 'this is a love interest', to 'I think this is the bad guy'.  As the reader goes through the text, their short term predictions about what is happening are revealed to be either correct or incorrect.  If the prediction is correct, the reader files the information away and continues building a framework for the tale.  If the reader's prediction is incorrect, then the reader must synthesize the correct information and make another prediction based on this new idea.  

The process of making short term predictions continues all the way through the text until the conclusion.  Sometimes the ending is a surprise, sometimes it is predicted.  Some readers love being right, some enjoy the surprise.  Either way, these short term predictions help them with the other kind of predictions:  Long term predictions.

Long term predictions deal with what the reader thinks is going to happen later in the story between characters, events that have yet to occur, and how the story is going to end.  These predictions take shape over a much longer time in the story and they are subject to the short term predictions.  

Predictions give a story shape.  They let the reader know that the tale is going somewhere and they get more and more of an idea where that is the longer they read.  

Students who do not predict as they read have no sense that the story is ever going to end.  They do not register events in an effective way and they do not view reading as an event that is heading towards some culminating and exciting conclusion.  It is just a bunch of events.  

My favorite example of how predictive behavior affects how we read happened when I was in a workshop given by Gerald G. Duffy.  He told the following short story.

I was flying.
There was a girl and her mother sitting across the aisle.
The mother was busy working on her laptop.  She kept pulling books out of a satchel beside her.
The little girl was looking out the window and aimlessly around the plane.  Then, she reached over and removed a book out of her mother's satchel, took a crayon out of her box and started scribbling wildly on the book.  Her mother looked up and said, "???????"

What did the mother say?  Well, I suppose that depends on the predictions you made.  When you read the first sentence did you see someone with wings?  Did you imagine they were a pilot?  Did you see a huge airplane?
Next, when you realized they were flying in some sort of conveyance, were they in first class or not?  Next, was the mother being inattentive?  Was the chid bored?  What sort of book did the child take out of the satchel?  Was it one of her own books?  Why did the child take the book?  Was it one of her mother's?  Was it okay that the child colored on it?  What color was the crayon?

All of these questions lead up to what her mother said when she saw the child coloring on the book.  As a reader, we make these predictions every time we encounter text.

Storytelling is an amazing way for students to practice the art of prediction.  Stories create vivid pictures for students and that sets the listener free to let their imaginations roam when it comes to what will happen next.  Anyone who has ever told a suspenseful story to children knows that when you get to the part when the characters are about to do something foolish the students will yell, "Don't Touch the Spinning Wheel!"  "Don't Go In There!  She's A Witch!"  "Don't Eat The Apple!"  They all know something bad is going to happen and they try to warn the characters.  The more students work on the skill of prediction, the better they will get at doing it automatically. 

Storytelling is an amazing tool in the arsenal of educators to help students develop the pre reading skill of prediction.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pre Reading Stories for K - 2 - Scope and Sequence

Pre Reading Stories are tales that help students focus on elements of comprehension without the mechanics of reading getting in the way.  This entry deals with the concepts of Scope and Sequence.

Scope means the way the story is laid out from the beginning and how it builds to the end.  Learning to sequence means understanding how to look at the events of a story in the order in which they occurred.

 Most children in the Pre-K through Second grade don't have any sense of how to put the events of a story into sequence or even why they belong in that order.  If you ask a kid to tell you what happened, they will often start with their favorite part, skip to something funny, recall a movement or sound, tell you the end, and only then mention how it all started.

If a person cannot understand the scope and sequence of a story, then the material has no form.  There is no sense that the piece will ever end or that it is going anywhere.  This explains the kind of stories you often get from this group of youngsters.  As they get older, students work out the idea that there is some sort of shape or form to the literature or stories they encounter, but some kids don't make that leap by themselves.  It has to be pointed out to them.

Repetition for this age group is essential.  We've always known that this group of listeners loves repetition.  They love being able to join in with the presenter and repetition allows for that.  There is something deeper going on there in terms of comprehension.

An example of how it hits the audience can be seen in the telling of a story like Sody Saluradus, which is the name for baking soda in this tale.  The mother runs out of baking soda and sends her son off to the store to get some more.  On his way home, he is eaten by a bear.  The bear jumps out and scares the day lights out of the audience.

The Pre -K jump when the bear appears, but since they don't have any idea what happened or that it might happen again, they will go back to passively watching the story.

The Kindergarten jump when the bear appears, but they have no idea where the bear came from or what happened.  Unlike the pre -K they have enough familiarity with stories to suspect this might actually be one of those scary stories they've heard so much about or been exposed to from their siblings.  Many of them stick their fingers in their ears just in case.

The first graders jump when the bear appears, and they stare about in amazement.  They think, hey, she was talking a long time before that bear jumped out.  What exactly was she saying?  This time I will listen and see if I can work out why this occurred.

The second graders get it and they anticipate that it may indeed happen again.

The sequence begins again when the mother sends out her daughter.  This time, the Pre - K jump and some of them put their fingers in their ears because it happened twice and it might happen again.  The Kindergarteners say, wait a minute!  There was all of this talking that happened before the bear appeared.  Maybe if I listen I will be able to figure out the sequence.  The first graders get it and the second graders are getting ready to play the whole sequence with you.

By the end of the story, the sequence is played out three more times.  The entire audience, even a few of the Pre K are playing with you and doing all of the movements and sounds.  The best part for most of the kids is the very end when a squirrel, which was introduced at the beginning of the story and not mentioned again until the end, saves the day.  He speaks squirrel, sings in squirrel and then is rewarded with biscuits and peanut butter.  The sequence remains the same, but that final change, the squirrel, is enough to make the story hold its shape.

I get emails and comments from parents who are amazed that their children can remember the entire story, tell it, sing it and get the order right all the way down to the squirrel.  I take the credit, of course, because a girl has to eat and feed her ravenous hoard of children, but the truth is that the power of this tale lies in its structure.

Without the ability to scope and sequence, students cannot remember what they've read, answer cogent questions about the characters or understand why the events in the story had any meaning to the characters.  They also have trouble identifying rising action, crucial events and why those events impacted the characters in particular ways.

Much of the ability to get beneath a story is learning how to look at its scope through the unfolding of the events of the tale.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

First Post

Welcome to what I hope will eventually become a conversation about arts and education.  The whole purpose of this conversation is to talk about arts and artists in education.  I want to know what people are doing, what techniques they use and how they employ them.  I am curious about what other artists think are important and how they go about identifying the essentials of arts and education.  I want to know what research is out there.  We don't need to keep reinventing the wheel.  I also want to share what I know...little as that may be about most things.

For now, I will start organizing my thoughts.  I'll post short articles and observations.  Who knows, maybe I'll even tell people I'm doing this!

A Beginning